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I am in Kathmandu, in Nepal, about to start a trek to Annapurna Base Camp. I am the only blind fuller-figured person on the trek.
I tripped over the seating at the initial group meeting but blamed that on several high-strength local beers I had consumed with dinner. The reality was I have no idea who anyone looked like in the room as the dark light precluded any vision.
I got the loud Aussie bloke beside me to fill in the necessary forms. He asked if I was sure I knew what I was doing. The shape of the silhouettes in the room suggested I was the largest and likely the most blind in the group.
I replied to the Aussie in a manly tone, ‘‘ very sure’’. I had no idea if I was staring at him or not. He seemed less than convinced. That is the nature of disability . It may be sight, hearing, loss of mobility, mental or intellectual. To allow it to define you and limit your options implies becoming a prisoner. A victim of fate.
I am a victim of my disability, therefore I am going to go through life as a victim. No way.
That is not living properly.
I am nervous about this trek. I have been in Kathmandu several days. It is an ancient city with many alleyways and narrow cobbled streets. It is medieval in nature. Dark and dusty but very beautiful and somehow mellow, especially for an Asian city. But it is not designed for the partially sighted.
But it is interesting how disability can also narrow concerns. It can provide focus and a totally different approach to life. It can give a different philosophy on life.
I was a worrier in my youth. I now follow a philosophy called stoicism. It is beautiful and subtle and denies the current interpretation of the term stoicism.
It has strong parallels with Buddhism without the more spiritual aspects.
It is about recognising what you can and can’t control. The things you can’t control are not worth worrying about. You can’t control their outcome. The main thing you can control is your own attitude.
My main physical concern is stairs, particularly downward stairs. I can’t determine their placement and they are potentially lethal. I am very very aware of the health risks of misjudgement with downward stairs . I have serious scar tissue to prove it.
This is little threat for those who are sighted. But I can’t allow this physical fear to totally determine how I operate.
I need to rely on others. Those who are fully sighted likely have little appreciation of such a concern. This is certainly not a condemnation. It is more an urge to try to appreciate that others can have a totally different reality. That it is also very difficult to acknowledge vulnerability. But that being human is about accepting and supporting vulnerability in ourselves and others.
We are all going to experience it at some stage in our lives. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are as frail as the rest of us, possibly more so, because of their failure to appreciate this human reality.
There is the risk with any disability that you fall into the negative trap of self-pity. I have certainly done that at certain stages in my life.
But self-pity is self-defeating and circular in defeat. It denies the possibility of attaining a good life.
Any good life is defined by how we deal with the obstacles we will all face. Self-pity denies the reality that all humans face struggle and hardship at some stage in their lives. A key aspect of a good life is fulfilling your potential, regardless of boundaries. Self-pity prevents that.
This is not a preach for staunch self-reliance and mindless positivity. It is an acknowledgement that all of us must take responsibility for what we can control in our lives but also accept the kindness and generosity of others that is part of being a functioning human.
None of us is ever entirely self-sufficient. The myth of total self-reliance that lies at the heart of modern capitalism is laughable. No man is an island. Any man who strives to be an island denies his humanity and reduces the potential joy in his life.
So I am embarking on a trek in the Himalayas tomorrow with a group of strangers. I am dreading the downward steps because I struggle to see them and they could cause me major injury.
The guest houses are archaic and dimly lit. I have several high-powered torches that could illuminate a skyscraper. They also have a flash option that could prove popular if disco music is available.
I have several hip flasks of whiskey that will improve my conversational skills, if not my breath. I am relying on the generosity of my travelling companions to assist me in navigating the terrain but have no desire to be a burden. Despite being virtually blind and fuller figured, I am reasonably fit. I can still tie my own shoelaces.
What interests me is the realisation of a choice I have made and will try to continue to make.
Do I allow my disability to define how I live my life? Or do I accept that other people have the generosity of spirit to allow me to function in their world. So far in my experiences, I have found most people have that generosity of spirit. I have taught for many years while being legally blind.
I have been able to function effectively in the classroom due to the tremendous support of colleagues and students. That’s pretty cool.
The concept of shared humanity will hopefully trump the current pursuit of individual self-interest that has been preached in recent years. It is the more natural human state.
- Peter Lyons is an Auckland secondary school teacher and an author of economic texts.