If a homeless alcoholic woman can be a leader, we all can, whether we realize it or not. A woman named Linda told my multiple sclerosis (MS) support group how seven years of increasing disability and depression had left her feeling useless. “I couldn’t do things for my family or anyone any more. I couldn’t do things I used to do with my friends. So I withdrew.”
Today, at age 55, Linda is pretty, with wavy brown hair and big green eyes. She sits up straight in her wheelchair and speaks in a strong voice with a hint of laughter behind most of her words. But ten years ago, five years after diagnosis, she looked different. In pictures from that time, she looks sad, defeated.
“I was bringing everybody down,” she said. “My brother Peter stopped coming to visit; then he stopped talking to me on the phone. He said it was too painful. I thought people were abandoning me, but actually I was driving them away.”
One day a 23 year old niece named Angela appointed herself Linda’s “personal trainer.” She started coming over once a week “just to be on your team.” Gradually, Linda started to accept her young relative’s support. Angela suggested Linda could try to ride in an MS bike event, using a recumbent handcycle, which you lie back on and pedal with your hands.
“At first, I was like, right, maybe I can make one block. I didn’t find the bike easy to use at all. But my brother Peter is a fix-it guy. He modified the bike so it worked. That kind of brought him back into my life. I built myself up, and when I rode in that MS event, my whole family was there.”
That day, Linda realized that she did have a major impact on her family. “I saw that if I was miserable, I was bringing them down with me. But if I was positive, my family would be happier. If I was at peace, I could calm other people. If I feel love or show joy, other people pick up on it.”
While it is true we can always find people in worse situations than ourown, it is even more true that we do inspire, and help. Having been in AA recovery for 21 years, I have noticed that even the slightest bit of caring works. When I worked the HIV suicide hot line our basic premise was “to listen,” and to find ways to support and encourage return calls. Being there can so often be a form of leadership.
It’s a primate thing -we are wired to imitate, and learn from, each other. It’s pretty cool that any one of us, simply by our actions or attitude, can encourage others to be their better selves, or to just keep going. Big up to Joseph for his spot-on response to the store clerk, wish I’d thought of it!
Often when we ask someone what they are good at, they will say, “Oh nothing much. I just like to talk to people or I like to sew or I like to cook. . . ,” or any of a hundred things that seem so ordinary. But to someone who is extremely sky, talking is a challenge. To people who can’t find the hole in the needle, sewing is extreme art. To someone who can’t boil eggs, cooking is a mystery. For everything we do well without effort, there is someone who would love to change places with us.
Two thumbs up David.
Thanks for sharing this really important post. I talk to my students about issues like these, telling them that it’s not a matter of becoming a role model, but that they already are: to family and friends, to neighbors and classmates, and even to complete strangers who happen to see them do something, say something, buy something, or not do, say, or buy something.
I like reading about what people are thinking, doing, experiencing, particularly when it aspires others who may be depressed at the moment.
I like reading about slices of life that can inspire other planet dwellers, especially if it inspires those who may be depressed at the moment.