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Generalizing Acceptance

  • Posted on March 18, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Willy came out of nowhere and said, “I feel bad about Stephen Hawking. He can’t walk or even move his mouth.”

Wow, where did this come from!?! I sat Willy down and asked why he felt bad for Stephen Hawking.

“Well, Stephen Hawking is very smart, but he can’t move. I wish there was a way for me to help him. But he’s already dead.”

(Later, in trying to confirm that statement, I discovered that Stephen Hawking was the victim of a death hoax. So, he’s not dead, but there’s still nothing Willy can do to help him.)

I said, “So, you pity Stephen Hawking because he’s disabled, is that right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

For the last few years, Willy and I have been talking about disability. In particular, we’ve talked about how Willy is disabled, but that being disabled doesn’t mean what many people think it means. He understands this as far as this idea applies to him, but this is the first time I’ve faced clear evidence that he has not yet learned to generalize the idea to others.

So, I said, “Willy, do you want people to feel bad for you because you’ve got your brain instead of someone else’s?”

“Well, no.”

“But you feel bad because Stephen Hawking can’t move.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you feel bad because Alex can’t talk?”

“Yeah, I do, because that’s hard.”

“So, you don’t want people who are more ‘abled’ than you are to feel bad for you, but you feel bad for those who are more ‘disabled’ than you are?”

Willy said, “yeah” again, but his voice dropped slightly in pitch. If he was familiar with the phrase, he might have said, “Well, when you put it that way…” Instead, he sat there thinking silently to himself.

“Do you see what I’m getting at?”

Willy shook his head. “Not yet.”

“Maybe instead of feeling bad that Stephen Hawking can’t move and that Alex can’t talk, you should be glad for what they can do. Even though Stephen Hawking can’t move, he’s really, really smart—”

“Yeah,” Willy said, “he’s almost as smart as me!”

I laughed, “Well, actually buddy, he’s probably a lot smarter than you. He’s certainly smarter than me. He’s smarter than Daddy. He’s smarter than anyone I know. So, he’s probably smarter than you, too, because he’s really, really smart. And so, even though Stephen Hawking can’t move, he can think really, really good, better than lots and lots of people. So, instead of feeling bad that Stephen Hawking can’t move, maybe you should feel glad that Stephen Hawking can think so well. And maybe instead of feeling bad that Alex can’t talk, maybe you should feel glad that Alex is so funny, because Alex is really funny, isn’t he?”

Willy thought about this and nodded, “Yeah, you’re right. Alex is funny and Stephen Hawking is smart.”

“So, instead of thinking about what people can’t do, we can think about what people can do. Instead of feeling bad for what they can’t do, we can value them for what they can do. Make sense?”

“Yeah,” Willy said, “I like that. That works.”

As Willy got up to walk away, I couldn’t help but add, “Besides, if I were to feel bad for Stephen Hawking about anything, I’d feel bad that he doesn’t know God.”

Willy’s mouth dropped open. “He doesn’t!?!”

I shrugged, “Nope.”

And then, just to add a twist, Willy said, “L-O-L.”

I bit my tongue to keep from launching into another futile lecture about the usage of “lol” and what it really means. For the life of me, I can’t convince Willy that it is NOT the equivalent of “wow.”