Who do I think I am?

Spring 2010 #8

Now and then a new wind blows, a moment arrives, something shifts irrevocably in the way the world appears; or perhaps in the way we appear in the world.  Today I met Christopher, a youngish fellow I see often enough, cruising around town on one of those battery powered mobility scooters.  Chris’s Gopher is distinctive.  For one thing it has a dog; a surprisingly large animal whose obvious attachment seems to be divided in equal parts between master and scooter; and it also has a rather expansive canopy among its several add-on accessories.  I’ve occasionally come across Chris at the Doctor’s practice (where scooter and dog come happily – if incongruously – right into the waiting room).  Today we met at the Rehab clinic that I frequent. In the waiting room, of course!

The new wind started to blow later in the afternoon when I was rolling home on Bugger, and found myself travelling in a curious convoy with dog and driver for several blocks.  Now, I must confess, I don’t particularly like those scooters!  They rush along footpaths at ungodly speed, their driver’s faces fixed in grim determination to make landfall by dusk – or else!  Whereas I, in my entirely dissimilar battery powered wheelchair, conduct myself in an altogether more civil manner.  I am, by my own admission, vastly superior to the scooter mob.  But, to be honest, I wasn’t just immersed in judgemental supremacy; I was uncomfortable.  A year or so back, when I was still a bona fide pedestrian, I had occasionally offered Chris a friendly smile, or even a few brief words.  But – and I am ashamed to admit this – it was an entirely different experience to meet eye to eye and wheel to wheel on a very public street corner. 

Chris doesn’t speak, and as we slowed for successive intersections, making way for one another, he made repeated gestures indicating that he was thirsty.  Then we came to a corner cafe, and I realised that his gesturing was an invitation for me to join him inside for a drink.  Me, him, our wheels and the dog. So there we were … …  and I made my excuse: I was hurrying home in time to meet a friend coming to spray our weeds in just a few minutes. 

Where Chris had been I have no idea, but I had come from a lengthy session with a Social Worker I see every month.  A gifted professional who I have come to trust, I visit her for counsel more than anything else.  Today’s agenda had one item: the difficult ‘Functional Illness’ letter I have recently received from a Melbourne Neurologist.  My counsellor challenged me to explore my admittedly intense aversion to the psychosomatic theory. “What”, she insisted, “makes you sure you are immune to the effects of trauma? Are you so different to the rest of the world?”  It was a point well made; a provocative challenge to face my own prejudice and superiority; my assumption that I am innately above the psychological stresses that others battle.    I travelled half a block further on my own, and then I backtracked to the Cafe and wrote on Christopher’s note pad a time and day next week for us to meet back and the same spot for coffee.  He was delighted!

Elitism, condescension, superiority, segregation, snobbery, racism; call it what you will, there is something sinister that universally divides man from man.  Sadly I feel its appeal.  Why are our differences from one another more enticing than our commonality?  Where does this need to set ourselves above other people spring from?  Perhaps it takes a lifetime to meet ourselves.

Another odd thing happened this week. Waiting for an end-of-day bus a scruffy, agitated man began calling at passengers at the busy stop; his language obscene and intimidating. He turned his attention to a boy in school uniform, a mild looking fellow in his early teens. This lad was visibly afraid, more so when the disturbed stranger strode right into his space and launched into an incomprehensible, offensive rant.   So I drove Bugger in between them and held the man’s manic gaze; insisting he leave the boy alone. He was livid, but he backed down, and I shadowed him at a distance until the bus took us all away.  I suspect the reason I succeeded, and why he didn’t take a swipe at me as I thought he might, is that in a weird manner we were no threat to each other. It may be reading too much into the moment of confrontation, but I felt there was an instant of mutual recognition, a disarming and pacifying glimpse of the team colours we share in some strange way.  Disability in all its diversity can have an oddly unifying effect.  After all, aren’t we each dealing, as best we can, day by day, with our own unique patch of human frailty?


5 Responses to “Who do I think I am?”

  1. 1 Ann October 25, 2010 at 3:11 am

    Your two different examples of the effect from being in a wheelchair are very interesting. Leveling the field, so to speak, creates “US” out of “Them”. Both embarrassing to recognize and helpful. Do you also find that “healthy people” now turn to you more for counsel or to share their innermost thoughts? It can also have that effect. We ourselves are now seen as more “safe” in our obvious weakness. Thank you once again, Roderick… for making me think.

  2. 2 Monty October 25, 2010 at 4:37 am

    Have to admit that i have not read one of you blogs for a while but i did read this one and really enjoyed it!! 🙂

  3. 3 roderickmallen October 26, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Yes indeed Ann; it seems sometimes that one person’s fragility does make another feel safe. A little bit of powerlessness opens up a whole world of new conversations.

  4. 4 roderickmallen October 26, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Thanks Monty! I hear you’re treading home soil soon, perhaps our paths might cross?

  1. 1 Christmas with Christopher « Rejoice! Trackback on December 26, 2010 at 7:06 pm
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