“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.” – Stephen Hawking, in a New York Times interview published May 9th, 2011. (Hawking is the brilliant English theoretical physicist who is famously disabled by ALS.)
Even now, decades after my injury, I still have to remind myself to follow Hawking’s advice to “concentrate on things my disability doesn’t prevent me doing well.”
When I was injured in 1979, I was one of those lucky teenagers who’d already discovered his passion and chosen career: I wanted to write, direct and perform in movies. I’d been a decent actor in my high school drama class, and legendary director Stanley Kubrick was my foremost idol and inspiration. That was Plan A. Plan B was really just an alternate Plan A: I’d have been equally happy as a musician, so impressed by keyboard wizard Keith Emerson (of the progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer) that my first piano lesson was already scheduled (oh, the irony!) when my injury occurred. So much for that idea: Paralyzed hands made “Alternate Plan A” completely impractical.
Plan A wasn’t entirely impossible, but in the 1980’s, we didn’t have the digital tools that now make filmmaking easier for everyone. That’s why I switched my goals from filmmaking to film studies. As I drifted toward a practical career path, my mom suggested writing film reviews for The Enterprise, our local community weekly. I submitted some writing samples to the editor, and a week later I was a professional freelance film critic.
Within months, I was recruited to write for Seattle’s second-largest newspaper, the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer. My un-chosen career had chosen me instead, and I was off and running (figuratively speaking). Far from the studios of Hollywood, I’d found a different way to indulge my passion for movies.
I still occasionally think about Plan A and what might’ve been. I see my uninjured self reflected in the career of George Clooney, who’s only two months older than I am. And while I have no particular desire for red carpets, Italian villas and a revolving-door policy toward gorgeous, expendable girlfriends, I occasionally feel pangs of envy toward Clooney as a respected actor and first-rate filmmaker. I can’t help but wonder: might that have been me?
What Can You Do Well?
Spinal cord injuries may limit our options in terms of careers, ambitions and potential relationships, but paralysis is perhaps the ultimate example of that time-honored phrase, “When one door closes, another one opens.” With paralysis, thousands of doors are instantly closed, but a lot of doors remain open, waiting for us to explore whatever awaits us beyond their thresholds.
Hawking was being cleverly specific when he said we should concentrate only on things we can still do well in spite of our disabilities. Why focus on half-hearted goals that don’t inspire you to excel? Life has a way of telling us that not everyone (including the non-disabled) can have their dream jobs — careers so fun and stimulating that they never feel like work. Maybe that’s true (and remember, even dream jobs have their downsides), but what about defying the odds? What about pursuing your goals even when they seem crazily out of reach?
Nothing should stop you from trying, but we also have to be honest with ourselves about what we’re capable of achieving. If you’re a young, newly-injured quad who loved playing basketball, you probably should reconsider that desire to excel in the NBA. But can you find another career in the NBA that would keep you involved with the sport you love? Could that compromise be satisfying?
Transcending Your Injury
The second part of the Hawking quote is perhaps even more important. We must not allow ourselves to become “disabled in spirit.” It’s pointless to dwell on your limitations at the expense of possibilities. Here at FacingDisability.com, you’ll find relevant wisdom from Guy W. Fried, MD, chief medical officer at Magee Rehab hospital in Philadelphia. When asked to define what characterizes the most promising spinal cord injury patients, Fried points to those who “figure a way to transcend the injury.” You can interpret that many ways, but “transcend” is the keyword: The most promising SCI patients find a way to rise above, go beyond, and exceed their limitations.
Remember the “Kobayashi Maru” test that Captain (now Admiral) Kirk teaches in “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” (and is seen taking as a younger man in the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot)? It was specifically designed as a no-win scenario for training cadets in the captain’s chair, but Kirk beat the system by cleverly changing the rules. (Well, OK, he cheated, but hey, it got the job done.) Likewise, there’s nothing preventing you from attempting new and untried strategies toward reaching your goals, whatever they may be. History loves a pioneer, and you might set a precedent for others to follow.
That doesn’t mean you’ll forget your pre-injury ambitions. Every once in a while I still ponder what my career and family path would’ve been and where it might’ve taken me had my injury never happened. It’s perfectly normal to have those thoughts. The trick is not allowing them haunt you.
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