Today’s sermonette comes from a remarkable statement from a remarkable man. Howard Rusk, founder of the groundbreaking Rusk Institute for Rehabilitation Medicine in New York in 1950, is considered the father of modern rehab in America. Along with Sir Ludwig Guttmann in England, founder of the Paralympics movement, Rusk revolutionized the recovery of those with spinal cord injuries after World War II by treating the whole patient, not just the injury, and getting him or her out in the world and not confined to a life of dependency. In any case, Dr. Rusk is famously quoted as saying:
“You don’t get fine china by putting clay in the sun. You have to put the clay through the white heat of the kiln if you want to make porcelain. Heat breaks some pieces. Life breaks some people. Disability breaks some people. But once the clay goes through the white heat of fire and comes out whole, it can never be clay again; once a person overcomes a disability through his own courage, determination, and hard work, he has a depth of spirit you and I know little about.”
Think about this for a second. Here is a man who had intimate, prolonged contact with hundreds, if not thousands, of CNS injury survivors and he noted something that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone else articulate so clearly: a disability like paralysis, no matter its considerable downside, often imbues a person with a much deeper intuitive knowledge of life. Is this true? If you are paralyzed or otherwise impaired, do you think of yourself as having “a depth of spirit” others haven’t experienced? Or do you see yourself, a la the traditional stereotype of the physically disabled, as being a victim of misfortune, cruelly robbed of a big chunk of life most people take for granted?
It’s a difficult question to answer. First of all, how do you measure “depth of spirit”? It’s clear that figures like Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama operate on a different spiritual level than the rest of us, but do you and I, simply by virtue of working through the debilitating psychological blow of paralysis? Frankly, I don’t know. It borders on the sin of pride, or maybe just rank self-inflation, to say you are more in tune with the universe or have reached a higher level of consciousness because you toot around in a wheelchair. It also plays into the constant refrain from the non-disabled that you are by definition “heroic” or “special,” someone who can teach others about humility, courage, and intestinal fortitude. I hate to break it to you, but you probably don’t classify as heroic. I know I’m don’t.
On the other hand, this titan of rehabilitative medicine may be on to something, perhaps more subtle than liberating South Africa or finding nirvana. Becoming disabled is a test, a test with no preparation or forethought. Some people are broken by this test, perhaps by their fearful self-doubt that they can’t pass it. And for those who have passed it, however you want to measure “passing,” have stood up to it. And that, I think Dr. Rusk is saying, is an act of self-determination that can only be good for you.
But on a spiritual scale of, say, one to ten, does that make you a 10 and the loving, supportive, and accepting people around you only a two or three?
As the Magic 8-Ball would say, “Very doubtful.”
.If you have succeeded in this challenge and used the misfortune of a disability to build up some seldom-used muscles of taking charge of your life, you are ahead of the game, not behind it. You are a winner, not a loser. Some psychologists call it “traumatic growth disorder.” Others haven’t given it a name but sense some strengthening of spirit.
Sounds great, but who succeeds like this and who doesn’t?
My own guess is most people faced with such an adversity can rise to this occasion. Not just the Nelson Mandela’s of the world – that would be a club of maybe six people – but also those of us who can’t imagine ourselves dealing with paralysis. There’s always the risk of the clay breaking in the kiln. But once you go through the white heat of the fire, you are no longer clay – you are certified porcelain.
© 2013 Allen Rucker |
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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life