Next month I will reach the 20th anniversary of the day I walked into the middle of a busy road to assist a stranded motorist. Crushed between two cars – and without any memory of the accident itself – I awoke in ICU without my left leg. This defining event in my life is something I have come to embrace as an undesired but nevertheless important gift.
And today, just hours after the Bataan Death March of election cycles has come to a close, I believe more than ever before that these experiences offer an opportunity to try to pull together what sometimes feel like the irreparably tearing seams of U.S. society.
Life with one limb has taught me that overcoming adversity is never truly a solo act. For all of my belief – especially at 27 – that I and I alone controlled my own destiny, limb loss showed me how much more I could accomplish when supported by others. Family, health care providers, other amputees – all helped me reclaim both physical and mental pieces of myself. Literally and figuratively, they reconstructed me.
For this to happen, we needed to understand – really understand – each other. We accomplished this by focusing on our common areas of understanding. We built on them, despite the fact that we often had little to nothing in common politically or philosophically. And it didn’t matter. We looked for shared values and reveled in them: helping other people; the importance of family; or even something as benign as a shared love of football (American and European).
Many people I have known for years voted for a different candidate than I did. They feel differently about the United States in 2016 than I do. And yet, I have sat down at a table for a drink with them and had adult discussions about the topic. We have agreed to disagree about certain issues, shaking our heads at each other with a smile as we unsuccessfully tried to push each other towards an alternative viewpoint. And always, we came back to our shared experiences, the things we had in common that transcended whether our view of the world was “red” or “blue”.
I recently had a fascinating political discussion with a close friend who gathers his news from media outlets quite different from the ones I rely on. It eventually became clear that the gulf separating us as we talked about the election arose from the fact that we didn’t even have a common set of facts we could agree upon as a starting point. But the conversation never devolved into shouting or finger-pointing. There were no awkward silences or moments of unspoken reproach – just mutual bemusement at the “same planet/different worlds” nature of this specific aspect of our relationship. We remain good friends today, and there are few people I trust and respect more, our political differences notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, that phenomenon seems to be largely absent from most public political discourse. It feels like we utterly lost key core principles – civility, respect for opposing points of view – during this election cycle.
While returning from a business trip to Holland last month, I got pulled aside (surprise) for a special security screening thanks to my prosthesis. The security official spoke excellent English and asked me my opinion of the pending election. I gave him my answer and he shook his head gravely: “We don’t understand why the candidates have to get so nasty. Disagree, yes. But do it respectfully.”
I have sat in a hospital bed staring at the space where my leg used to be, uncomprehending. I have felt the void of panic and fear that comes from being utterly alone in that moment, not a soul in my world with an ounce of shared experience to offer me. But what my amputation gave me was the opportunity to meet, work with, and achieve things with a range of people I never would have even met if I had two legs.
Before my discharge I asked my health care providers, “What do I need to do?” I wanted to reclaim the entirety of my pre-accident life. Everything. They told me.
With a team around me, I did it. Four months after becoming an above-knee amputee, I was able to complete a 10K road race, wearing a prosthesis custom-fabricated for my needs by a skilled professional, my physical therapist at my side every step of the way, my wife cheering me to the finish line.
If you came away from this election as many Americans did, feeling disgust about the process, the candidates, about the people on the “other side” of the political spectrum, I encourage you to take a breath and stop for a moment. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do?” And do it.
Find someone – better yet, a group of people – to join with as you walk on a path of conscious kindness towards others. Let’s find it in our hearts to be a little nicer, a little softer, a little more respectful of everyone we interact with – especially those who may themselves have low reserves of this skill – as we move into an uncertain future. That’s how you can contribute. That’s what you have to offer. That’s what life with a disability has taught me.