When I got your May 2000 issue, I put off reading Lorenzo W. Milam’s memorial to Mark O’Brien, “Lifestyles of the Blind and Paralyzed,” until the very end. As usual, the essay I put off had the most painful awakening in store.
O’Brien and Milam are right, although neither says it directly, that we shun the handicapped because they force us to face, once again, the futility of all our concerns. I would rather cross the street than encounter a man in a wheelchair because such an encounter calls into question what I have done with my gifts, my opportunities — usually squandered them on a new piece of software or clothing or some other diversion.
I loved how O’Brien tried to help physicist Stephen Hawking face his feelings. We all know it’s OK to feel anger, frustration, and rage, but O’Brien suggested that it’s a necessity. Only by experiencing these feelings can one hope to move to the next step.
Discussing Mark O’Brien’s interview with Stephen Hawking, Lorenzo Milam states, “There is no one in the world . . . who can lose the use of his or her body without having it resonate powerfully in the soul.” This struck me as a bit off kilter. Human beings come in so many varieties, it is shameful to claim that everyone with a disability should respond to it in the same way.
I can think of at least three possibilities. The first is that Hawking is denying his true feelings, as Milam believes. The second is that Hawking is telling the truth. The third is that Hawking might want to keep his feelings private.
If Hawking is in denial, so what? Denial can ease our pain and is a problem only when it harms others or oneself. The real myth is that all denial is unhealthy, that it leads to a shallow soul and a stunted spirit.
I also believe it is possible that some people with a disabling condition do not experience hurt and rage. Such a person would be rare, but Stephen Hawking could be one. For someone who enjoys mental work so much that it supplants physical activity, the loss of mobility might seem less important.
Finally, if Hawking does experience hurt, frustration, and rage, he has a right to evade questions about such a private matter.
I think Milam’s “I know you better than you know yourself” attitude is very ill-mannered. He shouldn’t assume to know Hawking’s inner state, and he definitely shouldn’t judge him by those assumptions.
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