This I Believe

Ben - Los Angeles, California
Entered on November 24, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

Necessary Optimism

Several years ago, a woman friend complained to me that she’d never find a husband. She cited statistics. “I’m over 40,” she said, “and I have a severe disability. Face it — what are my odds?”

I was younger and married, but I had — and still have — a severe physical disability similar to hers. In fact, we had different forms of the same diagnosis: spinal muscular atrophy. I was born without the ability to develop muscles. I never stood or walked, have always used a wheelchair and needed help with myriad daily tasks. She had a later onset. She hadn’t always used a wheelchair, and still managed to live somewhat more independently than I ever had. But she knew that wouldn’t last. Her strength was waning.

Still, she didn’t convince me of her inevitable singlehood. I said, “You never know what can happen. Anything is possible.”

I wasn’t just trying to cheer her up. Simplistic as it may sound, I believe it. I believe anything is possible. It’s been a core belief of my life.

I didn’t convince my friend any more than she’d convinced me. And I think that’s what she wanted to do: convince me. She wanted me to face the facts, to see reality for what it was. But my reality was different.

I did agree, however, that life can be unfairly tough for people with disabilities — through no fault of their own. Prejudice and lack of access to the experiences and resources that nondisabled people enjoy — these unfortunate facts do oppress us. They limit us more than our physical impairments themselves.

Yet that doesn’t mean our fate is already written. Exceptions occur. My heartfelt belief that anything is possible has gotten me through uncountable hard times.

A few years after this conversation, my optimism seemed to be borne out. My friend met a man, a disability-rights activist, a survivor of childhood cancer. They fell in love. At their wedding, I wanted to shout, “Told ya so.”

Unfortunately, their story took a sad turn. A few years into their marriage, his cancer resurged and took his life. Caring for him near the end exhausted her. Within weeks of his funeral, her ventilator malfunctioned and she died, too.

I guess if anything is possible, that means anything bad as much as anything good.

But it is precisely because people like me are so vulnerable that I find it crucial to believe in possibilities. It doesn’t mean I’m unaware of the harsh realities and dangerous obstructions. Yet somehow, from very early in my life — when I didn’t die in infancy as some doctors expected, didn’t wilt away in lonely custodial care — I’ve managed to beat the odds. So I keep struggling, adapting, hoping. Not because I have a strong character or am insufferably spiritual or cheerful. Frankly, I just don’t have a choice.

###