This holiday season...
In the late 1990s, I lived in Cincinnati and worked for the American Red Cross in the Social Services Department. I should preface everything I am about to tell you by letting you know that I have a handicapped brother, seven years my junior. I know, “handicapped” is not the politically correct word today. But, that, he is. He has cerebral palsy and epilepsy and depends entirely on the care given by others for his survival and well-being. He lives in Rome, NY and is fortunate to be under the care of some very loving individuals in a special center run by United Cerebral Palsy. He is almost 43 years old. I grew up taking care of Markie and love him dearly. I see him less frequently nowadays, but, more than anyone else in my life, Markie greatly influenced my thinking and values as a young person. Woe to the person who tries to harm another—be it another individual or any living thing—particularly if less capable than him or herself. I did not realize it growing up but was brought up to believe in the Buddhist principle of “ahimsa” or “do no harm” from the time I was seven years old and probably that whole way of thinking was naturally embedded in my psyche from the beginning. I believe that it is naturally in all of us, but sometimes needs to be fostered and encouraged.
So what do Markie and the principle of ahimsa have to do with my message today? Absolutely everything. Do no harm. Not only that…go out on a limb. And be grateful and happy with what we have! Thank God that we can walk and run and think and play freely and cook and go to the store and drive a CAR and take care of ourselves and others. There is so much to be thankful for in this amazing, miraculous human experience we call our life. And there are people among us who live their lives, I believe, to remind us that we are blessed and fortunate and ought to be falling-down-on-our-knees grateful for what we have and how lucky we are to live this precious life.
So, this is the story of Paul. Paul was very upset about something and even more upset that no one could understand him. He had come to the American Red Cross for help. He had cerebral palsy. He also had a golf cart. The cart was his link between freedom and being completely dependent on people like his brother and perhaps other friends and family around him to bring him what he needed. Tell me that you don’t love the feeling of being able to get into your car and just drive to the store when you need a carton of milk or some fresh kale. Well, Paul felt the same way about his golf cart. However, the Cincinnati Police department did not see it that way. Neither did some of his neighbors. It wasn’t like Paul could not drive the cart well or that he was parking his golf cart in dangerous or undesignated places. It was just that the cart was not a regular vehicle and as such, not allowed on the local streets of downtown Cincinnati. (How different was it, really, from a bike?) And they were trying to take his golf cart away and he was upset. So what did he do? He walked with a difficult crippled gait into the Red Cross to ask for help. Paul was asked to wait in an empty room on the first floor since he would have had to climb stairs to reach our department and I went down to meet with him. We sat at a table. He took out a piece of cardboard with letters of the alphabet written on it. He pointed to each letter and spelled out with agonizingly slow but steady, deliberate points of his finger, “I c-a-n s-e-e t-h-a-t y-o-u c-a-n s-e-e t-h-a-t I a-m i-n-t-e-l-l-i-g-e-n-t.” From that moment, I was determined to help him. All the while that he spelled out those words, I kept thinking, “I would have sat all day with my brother if he were able to talk with me in this manner.” I had long wished with all my heart for the key that would unlock Markie’s brain and a way for him to tell me what he wanted and wished for and dreamed of! And here was Paul, carefully spelling out with absolute precision of intent his need and his wishes. My heart was his. Sometimes, we need an advocate. In the end, Paul got to keep his golf cart. In fact, we left Cincinnati in the summer of 2001. As we drove away, one early Sunday morning, the last person I saw was Paul, driving his golf cart downtown. And I smiled, and felt happy for Paul and grateful because I had had the wherewithal to help him and…this is the most important part…I did, as did others in our community.
During this holiday season, at the very least, let us do no harm. Even in the way we drive to work in the morning…give a little bit of leeway and space to others. Even better, let’s find a way to go out on a limb for someone who may need a helping hand. The world will benefit and we will feel a bit happier as well. And most importantly, remember to be grateful for all the abundance we really do enjoy. Even if we are struggling, there may be things that we can feel happy about. A warm shower, the blue sky, the wagging dog who greets us at the end of the day, a helpful neighbor, the sister who lends her holiday sweater for a party, the colorful dragonfly, the Christmas cactus who blooms even when forgotten on the porch, the slanted soft light of a fall afternoon. So much. So much to be grateful for.