By Mark E. Smith
Imagine for a moment that you’re driving a car at 55mph on the highway, with other cars traveling around you, with twists and turns in the road ahead. And, in a split second decision, you decide that you’re done looking forward, and you’re only going to look backward – foot still on the accelerator, cars all around, and twists and turns in the road ahead. Maybe your family is in the car, and they’re pleading with you in horror to look forward; but, you continue only looking backward, with no discretion toward what’s in front of you.
What happens next?
At best, if your family can get control of the car, you’ll stop on the side of the road, going no where till you realize the importance of looking forward. Or, at worse, you’ll cause a devastating accident, destroying yourself and everyone around you.
Living with disability can be a lot like driving a car, where as long as we look forward, all is notably well. However, the minute we choose to only look backward in life – on what should’ve been, could’ve been, or would’ve been if we hadn’t been effected by disability – life stalls at best, crashes at worst.
A buddy of mine, who received a later-in-life disability, is sure that his life would’ve been perfect if it weren’t for disability. According to him, he would’ve been rich, famous, and in love, but disability has single-handedly ruined his life, and all he wishes is to go back in time and avoid the accident that paralyzed him.
In one of my more blunt moments, I responded to my buddy’s pity party at dinner one night by stating, “You weren’t rich, famous, and in love before your disability, and I know people with disabilities who are rich, famous, and in love – so, has it occurred to you that your disability isn’t the problem here? You’re so busy dwelling in the past and resenting your disability that you’re overlooking all of your potential in the present. Stop looking back, start looking forward, and you’ll finally get somewhere.”
Of course, all of us with disabilities could look back on our pasts, and have pity parties for ourselves, no matter if our disabilities resulted from birth, a later-in-life injury, or a progressive condition. We can all assert that we got the short end of the stick, that if it wasn’t for damn disabilities we should’ve, could’ve, would’ve had the best lives ever. In fact, the best pity-party hosts, like my friend, will tell you exactly how much better their lives would’ve been, scene by scene – and, they should know, as virtually all of their time is spent dwelling in it!
Yet, here’s the problem: When one dwells in the past, the present becomes null and the future void. See, we ultimately only find progress in the present, the only point in our lives that we can control – if not physically, at least emotionally and mentally. However, one aspect of our lives that we absolutely can’t control is our past – and when we get stuck forever trying to somehow control it, like wishing to go back and change it, of course it drives us into depression and destroys our lives. Again, we can’t steer a car forward by looking backward – we crash every time – and the same holds true for life.
The other part of the disability puzzle that keeps some from moving forward is when they insist, This isn’t how it was supposed to be. No, disability may not have been what we wanted, but it’s what we got, and insisting that this isn’t the way it was supposed to be is an entirely futile, looking-back state of mind that’s irrational, to say the least. In my own life, as a young child, I figured out that although my parents pointed to a medical error as the cause of my cerebral palsy, believing that my disability wasn’t supposed to be, it was what it was, and I had to get with the program, as is, and move forward in the present. We can tell ourselves till our last breaths that having a disability isn’t the way it was supposed to be, but it’s only effect is trapping us in a past that we can’t change. However, the minute we look forward, to the way life is, then we’re in control, able to pursue positive directions.
In one of my books, I extensively discuss that life is about change, and if we’re ever going to live successfully, we must embrace change, not fight it. After all, like disability itself, change often occurs no matter our ideals, and if we go with it, we grow, and if we fight it, we stagnate. What’s intriguing is that disability demands that we embrace change if we are to live successfully with it. In fact, have you ever noticed that the very terminology of our physical disabilities – developmental, injury, progressive – instructs us to live in the present, not the past, suggesting how to best address the changes that they bring to our lives? Take a look how they spell out that embracing change and living in the present are paths for success:
If you have a developmental disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Develop!
If you have an injury-related disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Heal!
If you have a progressive disability, what should you emotionally do as a person? Progress!
This realization of how disability-related terms are fitting directives on how to grow with change came to me when considering a friend of mine who, for a decade, has had a steadily-progressive disability. Yet, he’s seemingly no better at coping with it today than at diagnosis. Again, he’s one who’s clung to the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves of his past, only looking backward. And, it occurred to me that he literally hasn’t kept pace with the directives of his disability. As his disease has progressed, he’s refused to emotionally progress with it, and has stagnated as a person. Whenever he speaks of how increasingly depressing his life is, I want to exclaim, Obviously – and it’s that way because your disability is progressing, but you’re not! After 10 years, my friend simply hasn’t developed any coping skills, and he never will – that is, unless he stops living in the past, and moves into the present to address the true potentials in his life.
Now, I’m not saying that there’s not a grieving period to disability – there absolutely is. For those born with disabilities, the teenage years can raise why-me? questions. For those with later-in-life injuries, recovery can involve only-if? questions. And, for those with progressive disabilities, initial declines in abilities can usher in what-if? questions. However, we must soon move beyond the grief stages – that is, we can’t allow ourselves to only look backward and hold on to the past forever. At some point, if we’re to succeed with disability – and, more importantly, life – we must shut off the should’ve-could’ve-would’ves, stop dwelling in the past, embraces change, and lives in the present, fully addressing what is.
As an Australian acquaintance of mine put it, You’re disabled, mate – get over it, then get on with it, and quit your bellyaching! His words are a bit more frank than I would choose, but he gets at the point: Let us let go of the past, drop the should’ve-could’ve-would’ve thinking, and move forward in the present, where we don’t stagnate because of disability, but we develop, heal, and progress all the better for it – thriving with what is.