I was a cynic. I searched for people’s faults and usually found them. When someone did something nice or performed an act of kindness, I assumed there was an ulterior motive.
Then I got sick.
Last spring, I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. As my symptoms became noticeable—the stiff legged gait, the twitching in my upper arms, the use of a cane and more recently a walker—I became aware of total strangers rushing to assist me: the security guard who jumped from his desk to open a door, the waiter who offered his arm as I struggled to get up from the table, the passerby who lifted me from the sidewalk when I tripped and fell. There were also the angels of the health care profession, the doctors, nurses, therapists, and social workers who extended a thousand kindnesses. It was all so unexpected.
When my wife and I started attending a support group for ALS patients and their families, I was astonished to see how my fellow travelers dealt with their bodies’ betrayal with humor, grace, and quiet courage. Equally revealing was the way our families rallied around us, offering tireless aid and unconditional love.
Perhaps it should have come as no surprise when our friends started calling to check in on me and to see if there was anything they could do. Light bulbs got changed, errands run, our dog walked, and people showed up at our house just to hang out with me for a while. Lunch and dinner invitations arrived by the dozen. Two of our friends vied for the privilege of installing a new toilet seat for us .
Even with all this, I never anticipated that our community would form an organization with the sole purpose of supporting me and my family. They call it FANS—Friends Around Neil Selinger—and it now includes more than forty members. FANS participants drive me to my appointments, deliver meals to our house, and are available on short notice to help us out in any way we need. While many members are good friends of ours, others I only know peripherally. The fifteen or twenty minutes I get to spend in someone ’s car has afforded me the opportunity to learn about people with whom I would otherwise rarely interact, and in the process they get to know me, as well. Since most of my daytime drivers are women, I have finally become a ladies’ man. It only took fifty-six years.
I still maintain a healthy cynicism about many things such as politics and cable news, but not people. In my middle age I have discovered, if somewhat belatedly, that there is an innate goodness in almost all of us. I believe it is there, just waiting to be set free.