The Thing About Our Brokenness

I never got their names. This past weekend, I sat opposite three people who were waiting to be picked up after a conference on disability and rehabilitation. They were all blind, some with a double handicap. The small guy in a wheelchair with a blind cane towering above him had just won a major award at the closing ceremony. Everyone passing by was congratulating him. I took pictures.

This winner-guy’s joy was a thing of wonder. His wheelchair swallowed his tiny frame, his lifeless legs dissolved into the folds of his pants, his eyes a decorative reminder of what light once flooded therein. But as he spoke, his personality towered above all that brokenness. His storytelling voice boomed. His laughter leaped in gales that rushed to the shore and retreated with the debris of my hidden shards.

I watched as he raised his right hand every so often in preparedness for a congratulatory handshake from well-wishers. Some, passing by quickly, didn’t notice the outstretched hand. They were mostly conference staff clearing up the venue, their sighted eyes and moving limbs carrying them on autopilot towards a forgettable destination. Winner-guy took no offense as he withdrew his unshaken hand time and again. His stage presence rose undiminished.

As I listened, I realized that his presence towered not only because it was his moment, it was who he was. Somewhere in the stretch of his young life, he had mastered the art of conquering brokenness. Now he was cracking a joke, about the phone call he had just made to a friend:

“Yeah, so I bragged about getting the big award and he asks me, for real? I say, yeah, for real! He said, ya’ right! Did anyone see you get the award? I said, no!” Without missing a beat, the three laughed out so loud I found myself laughing along, at first having completely missed the joke. Of course, it was a conference of blind persons, no one saw his get the award. I laughed out even louder when I got the joke.

“Have you always been on a wheelchair?” The lady asks Winner-guy.

“Pretty much. Since I was four months old. Then when I was 23 I had a brain swelling that led to my blindness. I used to drive, do everything normal.” I wondered what “normal” meant for someone who had been wheelchair-bound all his life.

“Oh, my. It must be difficult for you now,” said the lady, fumbling blindly in her handbag for something.

“Well, I was taught never to indulge in self-pity. I use my disability as a reason to achieve.” He went on to tell of things he’s achieved, including an interest in pastoral work. This solicited an interesting response.

“Churches can make you feel very guilty sometimes,” said the lady. I perked up my ears harder and waited for the rest of her thoughts. “They tell you it’s God’s will that you’re blind, or that it’s the devil’s work. It all leaves you feeling guilty that you’re being punished for something.” It’s at this point that I struggled to fight back my tears.

Her words had penetrated a well-guarded fortress of anger within me. My mother has been blind 35 years. I remember desperate supplication at the altar of miracle peddlers who told her that she’s not getting healed because she lacks enough faith; anointing oils poured on her head to chase demons of blindness she had apparently invited; whispers of being an inheritor of curses for bizarre sins committed by some unknown relative in lifetimes past; multiple hands of barking prayer wolves shaking her head violently through hours of tortured begging for miracles, causing her to spend the night with a splitting headache.

I could sue them, I could sue them all, I could sue them all to blistering hell. They took her brokenness for a playground to test out their power, their beliefs, their unholy trade. This lady understood. But unlike me, she laughed about it. She stood triumphantly above the cracks where religion had caused her inner brokenness. I had sunk defeated through those cracks and therein hid my anger for years. The tears welled up at the plunge-pool of my eyes with a fermented burning. I released them without a care. After all, they couldn’t see me.

Suit guy is a listener. He doesn’t say much. He listens with his whole body, his head tucked deep into his chest, moving to stand very close to whoever is talking. He has no concept of personal space. That’s an invention of sighted folk in civilizations that have decided that the energy field of another human being causes discomfort. Standing too close to a stranger is an infringement of an unspoken right, mostly perceived as foul and primitive. In the villages blind to individualism, the six inches of personal space is a non-existent concept. 

Yet having lived in this space of western civilization too long, I find myself wanting my space too. I wonder, have we diminished our humanity in the course of building walls to protect individual comforts? I watch Suit guy as he inches his whole self right up to the lady’s knees when she starts talking, just to stand and listen. I’ve seen this with a lot of blind people; this listening with your entire being. I’m filled with the wonder of rediscovered innocence. I know he’s not hard of hearing, because another lady, perhaps his wife, calls out softly from the doorway a distance away and he turns around, tap-tapping purposefully towards her.

We live in a world where able-bodied people scratch at the scabies of their smallness for reasons to explain their purposelessness, their lack of accomplishment. Brokenness that can be overcome with choices and attitude adjustment is often qualified as “disease” that places one in line for benefits and entitlements. Not to diminish trauma or mental illness, but in a world of popping pills for every little discomfort and building insane wealth from branding anything as illness, one becomes weary of the fickleness of able-bodied humans. There’s always someone or something else to blame, never a mea culpa. The art of petulant high-nosed victimhood leaves a wave of rancid air in its wake. I was getting an attitude re-adjustment myself just listening to these three talk about what they had achieved.

But it’s when Winner-guy mentioned his wife, casually and endearingly, that I caught the stench of my own assumed superiority as a limbed and sighted being. How conceited of me to have been surprised that someone has loved him and taken him as her forever guy. Life’s most awesome experience, the experience of another’s unconditional embrace, is best savored when we do not hide our brokenness in shame or lay it out as a trap to catch another’s pity. Winner-guy seemed unpretentiously happy, content, alive. He was someone’s knight in shining armor.

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