When I asked him how he had come to terms with his situation, Alf told me a harrowing story. When he was first sent to a nursing home, it was on an emergency basis, and it was awful, like something out of a horror movie. The care was terrible; the staff was overworked and underpaid.
“The worst thing was they didn’t have room for me. They squeezed me into a two-bed room with two other guys who didn’t want me there. I had no control, no comfort, and was unwelcome besides. I went five days hardly speaking. When friends asked what they could do, I told them “Get me out of here or kill me.”
Somehow family and professionals got him into LHH. There he experienced a profound healing (my term – he probably wouldn’t call it that.) “I had already given up being able to do anything the world saw as important,” he says. “I call that my ‘blessing from MS,’ because it took all the pressure off me to ‘succeed’ on society’s terms. But what I hadn’t known was that people could accept me and care for me, even though I couldn’t do anything for them… When I got here, the nurses and everybody were like, “Mr. Adams, what can we do for you? They welcomed me; they were OK with me, just because of who I am, or really just because I am. They take care of everything for me; how can I not be happy with that?”
So if disability was a blessing from MS, this second blessing was even greater. This one is from the world, the nurses, and the people who pay the nurses, the city of San Francisco and, through Medicaid, the whole country. Being made to feel totally accepted, to feel that we live in a world that wants us. What an amazing gift!
Many of us struggle because we believe we are only as good as our accomplishments. We are only worth loving or worth taking space on the planet because of what we do for others, or what we have in the bank. Because of that belief, we’re constantly stressed about not being good enough. Alf now understands in his heart, because it’s reinforced every day, that the world will accept him as he is, without his doing anything.
Without a nightmare like Alf’s, it might take years or decades to embrace the understanding that life is good and that we are OK, too. Or we might never get there. I think that’s the kind of journey people take in 12-step programs; from a nightmare of being addicted, completely out of control, to accepting yourself and life as it is and taking the control you have. It’s not easy.
On one level, Alf is a lucky man. (He knows it. His most widely read essay is called “I Was Born Lucky.”) Many people live in far worse institutions, whether nursing homes or prisons. Wherever they live, few people get as much care or support as he does. But it’s not all luck. Good care or not, Alf’s still paralyzed, so his seeing the blessing in it is largely a matter of choice. And most people in considerably better situations don’t feel the way he does.
Do you? Chuang-Tzu said we should accept as a gift everything that comes, even death. What seems bad can turn out to be good. Scholars say his parable of Lady Li is actually about death. We fear it so much, but perhaps it’s not bad at all. When we die, we might wonder why we spent so much effort fighting it.
In Taoism, life and death, good and bad, beginning and ending follow each other endlessly. That’s what is meant by yin yang, the endless flow of opposites. We are all part of it; we can’t stop being part of it; so we might as well accept it. Hard as it is, there is blessing in it.
Please let me know what you think about this one. I’m having trouble understanding it myself.