For many years a large banner has festooned the wall of my local supermarket.
Advertising a charitable initiative that “helps children across Canada who are physically or developmentally challenged,” the banner features an adorable little girl sitting in a wheelchair. Next to her (in bold so you don’t miss it) a headline screams: “Making difficult lives a little easier.”
Every time I roll past this advertisement in my own wheelchair, I feel sad.
Sad for the beautiful little girl- that she is the poster child for what others have deemed “a difficult life.”
And, sad because when we believe that the presence of physical or cognitive challenges constitutes “a difficult life,” we both classify people with disabilities as “other” and we perpetuate a blanket stereotype that assumes people with disabilities are to be pitied.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate organizations and individuals that support children or adults facing challenges, or that I believe extra and unique support is not needed in the face of challenges. My son attends a free social club for youth with disabilities that is a true highlight in his life. My local library has a program where a volunteer brings me a bulging bag of books to read each month. A group from my church has brought to my family a weekly meal for the past 19 months; they will never know just how much that has blessed us.
In saying that the presence of disabilities doesn’t mean that a person should be classified as having “a difficult life,” I am also not in any way saying that living with disabilities is necessarily easy.
My own personal journey includes living with a severe form of chronic pain, physical disabilities that impact my ability to walk and limit my ability to speak, and the parenting of two young adults living with developmental disabilities. Sometimes it is so difficult that I feel as if my body and soul and are being wrenched through a crucible.
But, even in the face of significant challenges, would I say that I or my kids have difficult lives of sheer misery? Absolutely not.
If there is anything my journey has taught me, it is that even in the face of severe difficulty and pain, a beautiful life is possible. No matter what the obstacles in one’s path, peace is always an option, joy is always a choice, and loving those God brings across your path is always your privilege.
Whether or not we live with disabilities, it is a fact that each one of us is going to face innumerable challenges in our lifetimes. Workplaces are often rife with stress and poor interpersonal dynamics. Our children struggle in school or with making friends. Our marriages go through patches so dicey that we don’t know if we will make it through. Our bodies, or those of the ones we most love, get sick. We may even face a diagnosis that we are told will eventually take our lives. For some, the pain can be so deep that it hurts to go on living.
And yet. Even in the face of loss and pain and tremendous struggle, a choice is laid before us.
We can choose to wake up each day with gratitude in our hearts—thankful for the breath still in our bodies, the sun that rests gently on our faces. We can cherish the connections we have with our loved ones— both those loved ones who walk alongside us today and those loved ones who God has now called home.
Even when it is hard—and sometimes the challenges that our lives bring us are brutally hard—we can choose to embrace the life that courses through our bones and to open our eyes and spirits to really see what a miracle it is that everything has aligned to create this amazing world in which we live. None of it was guaranteed to us, or deserved by us. And yet, here we are, alive in this marvelous dance of life.
To some it may seem counterintuitive.
I once had a woman run down the street after me as I rode Sophie (my power chair) through my neighbourhood. Once she reached me, she thrust a twenty dollar bill at me. Astounded, I asked her (using my writing board) why she was doing this. “Well, you can’t speak. You must be in need. You must need money,” she answered. Based on my physically disabled appearance, she had made a powerful assumption about what my life must be like. (I ended up donating the money to a family who genuinely needed it).
I once had another woman say to me that if she lived like I do- wracked by severe pain, struggling to relearn to walk and having faced so many other obstacles- that she would curl up in bed and completely give up. She seemed shocked that I have made it a priority to live a life of joy and peace, and that happiness is a significant part of my daily world.
But long ago, I came to the realization that I can live in severe pain and be the most miserable and depressed woman around. Or, I can live with severe pain and yet embrace joy, reaching with my spirit towards the light, growing in my heart love for the people around me. When those two options are presented like that- I think almost anyone would choose the latter.
The thing is, we cannot always changes the circumstances we face, and the unfair hardships that come our way- but we definitely do have a choice in how we react to them and the courage in which we meet them head-on.
I know that there are people who read this blog who are currently facing even more trying times than I have faced. I don’t want to minimize the pain you are in. Sometimes life is so incredibly, stunningly painful. I don’t want to diminish your need to grieve, to mourn deeply your losses. Sometimes the healthiest thing we can do in the face of hardship is to take time to grieve, cry, and fully feel the pain of the twisted path our lives have taken.
But in the face of your pain and struggles, I do want to encourage you to not give up on reaching for joy amidst your pain. To embrace the moments before you. To live your life fully even when the challenges are insurmountably high. To live with the hauntingly beautiful awareness that each second and each minute and each day and each hour you have been gifted is one that is incredibly precious, incredibly beautiful, incredibly yours.