My vision without my glasses is pretty bad. My own hand in front of my face is blurry and even though I would probably be able to identify a large object that is ten to twenty feet away (something the size of a car or larger) I can’t see smaller objects or read any lettering or signs. Anything further away then twenty feet is just a fuzzy blob of shape and color.
About twenty years ago, I went to a ‘Lenscrafters’ in a shopping mall in suburban New York. The frames to my glasses had bent but could be repaired while I waited (in about an hour!). I sat down in a chair in the waiting area and picked up a magazine which I quickly realized I couldn’t read unless I held it about three inches from my face and even then it was tricky. I put the magazine down and just sat there for a minute or two and then I thought of my friend who is has a visual disability and has used both a cane and a guide dog to assist her over the years.
I decided that instead of sitting in that chair for an hour staring at a fuzzy wall, I would use the time as an opportunity to try to gain even the smallest glimmer of understanding of what it would be like if my ability to see without glasses was the best that I could expect. I assigned myself a task to find a coffee shop, buy a cup of coffee and then find my way back to ‘Lenscrafters’.
I was able to complete my self assigned tasks but not without asking for help. Being unfamiliar with the mall I had to ask someone to help me find the coffee shop and then I had to ask the coffee shop employee to tell me what kind of specialty drinks they had and how much they cost. I had to hold my money pretty close to my face to make sure I was paying with the correct bill. I had to navigate getting on and off the escalator with limited vision. By the time I returned to Lenscrafters, I was grateful to be reunited with my glasses and my ability to see.
It was an interesting experiment which definitely required me to step out of my comfort zone. I felt vulnerable and a little uncomfortable having to ask strangers for help. But let’s be honest, any discomfort or vulnerability I felt was tempered by the knowledge that it was temporary. Still, when I told my friend who is blind what I had done, she was touched. She said very few people would even try to take it upon themselves to understand what it is like to be a person with a disability. She also said that most able bodied people take for granted that they will always be able bodied, when in fact, at any time, any one of us could be faced with an illness or injury that leaves us with chronic pain, mobility issues, or an inability to see, hear, speak or think the way we used to. Any one of us able bodied people could very well be so temporarily.
Why am I telling you all this? I have a good friend who deals with chronic pain on a daily basis. She has recently had two major surgeries and hospitalizations but sadly has had no relief. In addition, she is now facing mobility issues and finds herself needing to use a wheelchair to travel any significant distance. To add insult to injury, as she has reached out to her friends and community for help and support, she has found that many people are shutting her out. Some people have just stop taking her calls altogether. Others have told her that her level of illness makes them uncomfortable or that they are not comfortable having a friend who uses a wheelchair.
I have two lines of thought about these feelings of discomfort:
1.) I understand that feeling uncomfortable feels, well, uncomfortable. Anytime we are faced with a situation that is unfamiliar or new or in which we don’t know what to do or say, the temptation can be to avoid the situation altogether and shut down that uncomfortable feeling. This can apply to visiting or supporting our friends when they are sick or injured or any other plethora of new or scary situations. But before moving into avoidance and denial consider that the feeling of discomfort is also signaling an opportunity for personal growth.
By being willing to sit with that feeling of discomfort, we give our brain the opportunity to confront and resolve the cognitive dissonance between how we are actually feeling, and the guilt or shame we may feel for feeling that way. Then, we can find our courage, lean in, and access feelings of empathy and compassion instead of succumbing to fear. We may find that we are awkward and clumsy in our attempts to reach out in these situations- but at least it is authentic. And the more we are willing to try, the less awkward and clumsy it becomes.
2.) Consider the idea that your able-bodiedness may be temporary. How would you feel if tomorrow you found yourself unable to use your body in the way you are used to using it. Scared? Confused? Frustrated? Angry? Sad? Now imagine that feeling all of those feelings you reach out to people – who have been your friends for years – for emotional support or assistance and their response is that due to your not being able to use your body in the same way you used to they are no longer comfortable being your friend. How devastating would that be?
It’s okay- normal even- to feel uncomfortable. Imagine though, how that discomfort can be transformed into something so much more powerful if we are willing acknowledge that we can simultaneously feel uncomfortable and also make an effort to be empathetic and compassionate. Can we find the courage to say, “I’m feeling uncomfortable with what you are going through but I’m working on it and want to find some way to try to be supportive.”
We don’t have to make a commitment to “fixing” whatever our friend is going through- there may not even be a viable solution. And it is totally healthy to set boundaries. I am not suggesting that it is required or even appropriate to be available to someone 24 hours a day. I would say to try, for a moment, to put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about how you might feel if you were going through what they are going through. Remind yourself that at any moment on any day your world might be completely turned upside down. Imagine what it might be like if you needed to learn to navigate the world in an entirely different way. And then choose your actions based on how you would hope your friends would respond to you.
It’s easy really- treat others the way you would want to be treated. Even if it makes you feel a little uncomfortable.