Paul Andersen: Fair Game
July 27, 2009
After a meeting in Snowmass last week I decided to ride my bike back to Basalt over Snowmass Divide. I could have hurried back home to work, but opted instead for a workout and views of the lofty peaks in Snowmass Creek.
Climbing up the grade toward Krabloonik, I stood on the pedals and found my cadence. Thoughts soon flowed, as they often do for me on a bike ride, with the usual litany of unresolved conflicts and bothersome concerns. The rhythm of legs, heart and lungs dredges them up unconsciously, like the aerator in a septic pond. I call it cycletherapy.
Approaching a bus stop on my way up the long hill, I noticed a man seated by the edge of the road. As I got closer, I could see that he was in a wheelchair and that he was young. A little closer and I noticed that he had no legs below the hips.
“Hi! How’re you doin’?” I smiled as I pedaled by. “Good. How are you?” he replied, watching me with a focused gaze. “Fine,” I said. A moment later I heard him call out, “Have a great day!”
Have a great day! I was riding my bike in the cool, fresh mountain air, a free spirit in a free body, elated by endorphins and natural beauty. You bet I was having a great day. But what about that young man with no legs? What of him?
I began to wonder how he had lost them. Perhaps he was a war veteran, the ultimate national sacrifice. He could have been an accident victim, a diabetic … As I thought about that young man in the wheelchair, I lost track of all else.
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I rode up to the top of the divide and gazed into the wilderness beyond, but that wasn’t the end of it. Our encounter had been brief, a momentary glimpse, but I felt that young man’s eyes watching me as I rode past him.
Now I saw myself from his vantage, and my middling concerns suddenly became insignificant, superficial. His plight made me appreciative, humble, subdued. With my shift of awareness came a sense of sorrow that I couldn’t deny, nor did I want to.
I feel that way every time I hear the news, every time I see photos or read accounts of wars, disasters, poverty, disease. I feel sympathy for those who suffer. I marvel at my own good fortune, enjoying health, peace, tranquility, and the spiritual salve of nature.
Darwin said that sympathy is an evolutionary trait shared by animals for the suffering of their kind, that we project ourselves emotionally into another’s experience. From sympathy arises a foundation of morality and ethics. We value justice, equality, rights, charity, aid and opportunity through self-projection.
Today’s constant media exposure brings suffering into focus, making us hourly witnesses. The Buddhists suggest that suffering is the law of life. We come face-to-face with this law every time we turn on the radio or the TV, drifting between acceptance and despair.
If Darwin was right, then it should be our natural instinct to act on the suffering of others, to respond, at least with emotional acknowledgment. Yet how many of us ignore it or go on inflicting suffering upon others, often by choice, sometimes unconsciously?
A daily bludgeoning of media-driven brutality can dull our emotions and hinder our self-projection. Perhaps we need to get more personal with suffering, like the feelings of loss and pain I had for that young man in the wheelchair during that brief moment of connection.
Life offers reflective moments, small mirrors through which we see our lives. Such reflections play on our minds, invade our thoughts, cause subtle shifts in our lives. They nudge us further along the evolutionary continuum, or at least that’s my hope.
“Have a great day!” said the young man in the wheelchair, unaware of the enrichment he provided me with that warm, friendly wish. His blessing gave me something powerful to consider that went well beyond the moment. I feel it still.