I will admit that I have a hard time reading books written by other people with limb loss/difference. For a guy who reads a lot, you might find this (a) odd, (b) symptomatic of some repressed negative emotions relating to my own LL, and/or (c) disingenuous. But I’ve identified two reasons supporting my unofficial boycott of these texts.
First (and less philosophically relevant), I read to escape what it is that I do everyday. Otherwise, my pleasure reading becomes just another offshoot of my job.
For example, when I first became a lawyer, the firm I worked for handled lots of complex environmental contamination cases, and I participated in extensive discovery that introduced me to underwater ground flow charts, trichlorethylene, and deposition testimony that tended to focus on leaking/knocked-over barrels containing the kinds of chemicals that you wouldn’t want to find in your drinking water.
Right around that time, the critically acclaimed A Civil Action hit bookstores. Well written, fascinating, and later turned into a movie starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall, I couldn’t read the book or see the movie until years after I stopped representing insurance companies. (I recommend the book, by the way, without reservation. The movie . . . not so much.)
Second, and much more important for the purposes of this post, I find the central message in LL/D books . . . limited. I can’t even get past the book jackets, which feature the following words with nauseating frequency: inspiring; moving; courageous; heroic; compelling; unforgettable; remarkable; and motivational. When I peruse just the book jackets of the best known authors in the LL/D community, I have the vague sensation of OD’ing on something saccharine.
This is not a criticism of the authors (they’re not responsible for the book jackets) – they truly all do have inspiring, moving, courageous, heroic, compelling, unforgettable, remarkable and motivational stories to tell, and I’m not suggesting that they refrain from telling them. Moreover, anyone who reads this blog with any regularity knows that I believe that these stories possess a unique power.
But here’s the problem. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to thousands of amputees over the last decade and hear, in their own words, how they came to this LL/D world. And I can say with certainty that 72 year-old Michael, whose illness claimed his leg and ultimately left him in a coma for three months, has just as compelling a story to tell as the elite triathlete. Martha, who got hit by a Chicago bus at the age of 55 while trying to escape a mugger and lost her leg in the process could reduce the reader to tears just as effectively as the high-profile mountain climber.
As Syndrome, the accidentally insightful villain in the The Incredibles notes: “Everyone can be super! And when everyone’s super, no one will be.” Similarly, just because every person with LL/D can powerfully proffer the message “Because I triumphed over [insert incredible obstacle heroically overcome here], you can too!”, doesn’t mean that they should.
Some would reflexively respond to the preceding sentence as follows: these individuals serve as role models as evidenced by the fact that some percentage of the public buys their books and seeks their autographs. That’s the value of their message, and who are you, Dave, to second-guess it?
I can’t deny that there is an element of truth to that response. But I guess I ultimately find the “I’m remarkable and you can be too” message, in a word, boring. And I would further point out that for every person who buys into the message I’m questioning, you may well have three others – people who are invisible for all intents and purposes, because they don’t purchase the books and seek the authors’ John Hancocks – whose reaction is, “Those people are incredible, but I can’t relate to them.” This second group of people is dealing with what I call the “Eric Johnson Paradox.”
Eric Johnson is a guitarist. He’s not well known to the general public, but in the guitar-playing community, he’s part of the discussion when debating the most talented living axeman.
Like Johnson, I own a Fender Stratocaster guitar. Like Johnson, my last name has two syllables. The similarities end there.
He plays with a grace, precision, feel, and speed that, in combination, elude easy explanation. When you see his fingers flying up and down the neck of the guitar, there’s something otherworldly about what he’s doing, even when compared to other professional players.
I love Eric Johnson’s music and will gladly part with hard-earned cash to see him play. And yet, I have the urge to sell my guitar every time I walk out of one of his shows, because while I’m blown away by what he does, I will never be even 1/1000th the player that he is, no matter how hard I try.
So the net experience is one of simultaneous (shallow) connection – we’re both guitar players – and (deep) divide – he stands atop the guitar world’s Mt. Olympus while I inhabit a slightly raised, muddy patch of ground in my Long Island backyard. Put simply, when it comes to the guitar, Eric Johnson is, without question, a freak (I use that word with respect and awe in this context).
The same feeling, I submit, afflicts individuals with LL/D when reading about the heroics of the most successful people in our community. Yes, Person X and I both happen to have less than the full complement of human limbs, but Person X has done things so physically novel that she is as much a freak with a prosthesis as Eric Johnson is with a guitar (and again, I use that word with respect and awe, not as a pejorative term).
But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that I’m the only person affected by the Eric Johnson Paradox, and that every other human being reading the collected Anthology of Amazing Individuals with LL/D derives immense satisfaction and reward from the “You can do it if I can do it!” message.
I still think we can and should challenge ourselves to say something different. Our message is deeper, more vibrant, and ultimately, more uniting than the one-dimensional cliche that I fear has become the rule in LL/D literature.
I’m going to take an initial stab at that different message, realizing that I may well fail. But operating under the principle that I’ve always learned more from my failures than my successes, I’m excited to jump off this theoretical cliff, fully aware that I’ll probably end up landing head first on something antithetical to my overall well being in the process.
This new message doesn’t focus on overcoming adversity. It doesn’t focus on triumphing over prejudice, surpassing physical obstacles that reason dictates should limit us, or purportedly heroic or inspirational acts. Those concepts, all of them, are ultimately about “me.”
In contrast, my proposed message focuses on “we.” And by “we”, I mean all people, not just people with LL/D.
We are defined by how we respond to the challenges life tosses like grenades into our path. How I choose to respond to losing my left leg speaks to what kind of person I am, in exactly the same way that a teenager who chooses to either take or not take the cocaine or heroin circulating around the party at her friend’s house speaks to what kind of person she is. How you choose to respond to the absence of your right arm above the elbow defines you, just as how your cousin Freddie chooses to respond to being laid off with a wife and two kids to support defines him.
My experience, on its face, looks entirely different than the teen’s, but actually isn’t. Your experience and Freddie’s present radically different facades, but when you strip off the veneer and look at the core, they’re similar.
The life lesson isn’t that we’re remarkable because we were born without or came to lose body parts. The part that matters is the response. Every human being – young or old; disabled or able; rich or poor – will get blown up by Life at some point. The only question is, how will they deal with it?
Stripped to its essence, I believe we should be talking about how our response to these challenges defines who we are, and how that process is the same for everyone.
It’s a message of true shared experience, not the Eric Johnson Paradox. It’s a message that brings people together on the same level, as opposed to one that’s fascinating but ultimately differentiating. And it’s a message that’s about awareness (understand that your response, whatever response you choose, defines you), not instruction (I’ve overcome obstacle Y, and if you follow the same principles, you can overcome yours).
I’m sure that I’ve radically oversimplified certain things in this conceptual framework, and failed to go deep enough in other areas. But ever since I lost my leg, I keep coming back, in one way or another, to the feeling of difference, to the alien nature of limb loss/difference that inherently divides and separates. And by far the most interesting people I’ve met on my journey, the ones with the most to say (and ironically, the ones often least likely to put their thoughts on a page in autobiographical form), are the ones who have found the strength and power to unite others as a result of their difference.
It’s a rare skill, but one I believe will become ever more valuable in the future. And I look forward to reading new books and hearing new speeches by people in the LL/D community who tackle these new, more complex (and I think, more rewarding) themes in the coming years. In a society that’s becoming increasingly polarized in so many ways, these individuals may have the ability to reshape not only the big issues facing the LL/D community, but those affecting every person.