Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We could be heroes

I have decided not to say that I'm feeling a bit better, because I keep saying that whether or not it is true. I did however manage to finish this somewhat disjointed post, so it would probably be true today. Anyway, both Tokah and Elizabeth have been writing about courage and disability lately, and I wanted to add my pennysworth, even if I arrive at much the same conclusions.

The reason brave and its synonyms are such unpopular words among disabled people is that the concept is frequently applied to us by default, as if our existence demands courage. The classic account is where someone with a visible impairment is approached and told that they are "brave" by a total stranger. Which is offensive. Unless of course, they have left the house wearing fuchsia pink wellies and leopard-print leggings or something - that would be brave.

Impairment is something that happens to you or the way you happen to be, not something you take on. And I think in order for courage to exist there must be internal conflict; a person must be afraid and act against that fear. It's not just a matter of having the psychological equipment to do something; people say I am calm in a crisis, but this isn't because I am brave, only my brain doesn't work quick enough to muster up a panic. There are also behaviours and attitudes we can mistake for courage, perhaps especially in ourselves. Stubbornness, recklessness and even denial can feel like courage because we are having to doggedly overcome a deep inhibition - even if, on consideration, we might find this inhibition to be perfectly reasonable.

I think courage also requires some sort of virtuous purpose. The most admirable form of bravery is undoubtedly when a person overcomes fear for the benefit of other people, and the range of this can be enormous. I also think we can consider any act of genuine self-improvement (such as wearing fuchsia pink wellies) to be virtuous and admirable and arguable for the greater good of everyone.

At one point not, so long ago in our culture, we made heroes of people who went to some place uncomfortable and stuck a Union Flag in the ground. Such men went to the North Pole, the top of Everest, crossed desserts and oceans and dense jungle without so much as a loosening of the cravat. They were heroes, but these days a lot of similarly dangerous physical activity has become mere sport and as such, is not nearly so celebrated.

Unless those people have physical impairments. Now, physical impairment can be a major obstacle in various activities, but it is a purely logistical one. If you want to get a wheelchair-user across the Grand Canyon on a tight-rope, the principle issue is logistics. For this reason, a disabled person may need to be more determined in their efforts to partake in these activities, but they don't need an ounce more courage than anyone else doing the same thing. And as it is just a hobby, are we right to call it courage at all?

Yes, yes, yes, some of them are brave; some of them would meet my criteria, but point is that there is no default on this stuff.

On a similar theme, there's a particular reaction to impairment itself which is sometimes considered brave; "I'm not going to let this defeat me!" she cried as she got up and walked on her broken leg, resulting in the fall that broke her neck.

Dominant models of disability use the language of warfare to describe our relationships with illness (at least with serious illness; you never hear anyone say "I've just come out of a vicious skirmish with a verruca!"). Denial can very easily feel like courage; you lose sight of some fundamental differences between facing facts and giving in. Elizabeth recently mentioned those who "bravely" refuse to consider themselves disabled. And Nelson put the telescope up to his injured eye and declared, "I see no ships!"

But some of the most heroic of history have been about making peace with the enemy, acts requiring far more courage than it took to keep on fighting. Similarly with illness and a lot of life crises. In fact, since I just mentioned Nelson, he is also supposed to have said, when he was shot in the arm, "Let me alone: I have yet my legs and one arm. Tell the surgeon to make haste and his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it's off the better!" as opposed to, "Gangrene schmagrene, my arm will be just fine!"

I think that it takes a fair amount of courage to accept the facts about ourselves, our lives and our limitations, but perhaps most especially, to accept this and the fact that our happiness remains in our own hands. Impairment is just one thing which can make a person feel that their life has been ruined. It is natural that people respond with distress to a crisis, but in the long term it can be tragically easy to accept discontentment. People do this all the time, feeling themselves condemned to a state of not being happy, because of some great disappointment, some failed potential or other. Occasionally, individuals who vehemently argue for their impairment as a positive part of themselves will nevertheless argue that disability ruins their lives, since they can't get a job and nobody likes them, everybody hates them and there isn't a ramp down into the garden so they can't even go and eat worms.

So people who have good lives, despite taking blows that could have destroyed them - or simply turned them into miserable bastards - are heroes. And I do know a fair few of these who happen to be disabled.


Sharon McDaid said...

Your definition of bravery is spot on, and some disabled people will fit the bill, but for merely continued existence!
I dislike the battle language of illness; fighting cancer (or whatever), defeating it. It implies that anyone who doesn't get better, just hasn't fought hard enough.

Anonymous said...

I agree! Being brave doesn't mean that you're not scared, but rather that you do what you have to, even if you are scared.

Disability is not automatically a scary thing; it's just that people project their fear-of-the-unknown onto disabled people.

Sharon is quite right, too -- people don't "lose the fight" against cancer or whatnot because they lack the "moral fibre" to do so. The whole illness/disability as divine punishment for sin is such a tiresome myth.

Elizabeth McClung said...

I always have a problem doing anything for the "greater good" because I have never been able to locate it. Please let me know if anyone has. I agree that picking up and moving on, and trying not to be a miserable bastard (permanently) are people who I would find couragous, inspirational, heroic. Being in a country now of immigrants, I like hearing the stories of those who left everything, who lost everything, and started again. They lived with fear, facing it, struggling against it, until some new security could be obtained.