Perfectly Imperfect Cripples
We are all cripples; or we all cripple ourselves in one way or another. It may not be as obvious as those who are in a wheelchair or those who live with any host of diseases that deform the body, but nevertheless we all have issues. Some may battle serious diseases such as depression or anorexia, while others battle more obscure diseases like narcissism, kleptomania, or social ineptitude. More than those who would admit it have addictions to sex, drugs, or alcohol. As we battle our own issues, our attention tends to turn inward and we don’t realize that others suffer as well. Empathy allows us to understand that every single one of us struggles in some way. Compassion allows us to realize that nobody can get through life alone. If we allow empathy and compassion to guide our actions then we can free each other from our individual struggles. In 1986, Nancy Mairs wrote “On Being a Cripple” about her intimate relationship with Multiple Sclerosis. It details her stages of emotions and of coping with such a debilitating disease. She shares how she deals with life every day, how she sees herself, and how others see and treat her. Even though I don’t have MS, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities between her battle with the disease and my own problems or those of all the other people I know. Mairs sets the stage of her story by relating a humorous anecdote about her finishing up in the restroom one day and, after a moment of distraction about writing her essay, loses her balance and falls backwards onto the toilet to become stuck like a beetle on its back. Due to her limited use of limbs because of MS, she flailed and floundered around a bit before finally righting herself – all the while laughing about her predicament (Mairs 244). Mairs’ introduction to her story is unique, and quickly diffuses what might be considered a tragic subject about a degenerative disease with no cure. Throughout her writing she couples her sense of humor with a frank and brutally honest approach to her condition. Of all the things that MS can steal from your body and your soul, she writes that the one thing that you can’t live without is your sense of humor. She prefers to be called a cripple, rather than disabled or handicapped. It is not a plea for help. To her it is simply the truth of her situation. She writes, “‘Cripple’ seems to me a clean word, straightforward and precise” (Mairs 245). The use of the word “cripple” embodies her attitude that she refuses to accept the inflection of the other titles that seem to make those so-named as somehow less than what they are. She prefers to call it like it is. She asks no favors, no pity, no sympathy, and offers no excuses. She writes that, “As a cripple, I swagger” (Mairs 245). Owning and accepting the truth of her condition has given her the strength to be exactly who she is without regrets.
Due to her positive attitude, Multiple Sclerosis hasn’t gotten the best of Mairs just yet. She still leads a somewhat normal life in that she continues to teach, write, cook, and raise her children. When time and money affords, she spends evenings with her husband on the porch drinking and smoking cigars watching the sun dip behind the Tucson mountain range. As much as she proves that she doesn’t let MS dictate who she is, she still admits that she hates it. If a cure were to be found some day, she would take it in a heartbeat. But until then, she will keep on with her silent yet always present adversary throughout her remaining years.
One thing that Mairs is keenly aware of is those around her and how they react to her condition. For most, they don’t see a person suffering from an incurable disease. They see a teacher, a mother, a fierce friend, occasionally a loony, and never a saint (Mairs 256). Many are helpful, and try to anticipate her particular needs. Whether it is in the grocery line or shopping for some new clothes, clerks and salespeople smile and without a pause...
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