Our personal mode of being in the world is among the most important aspects of ourselves. The manner in which we interact with other human beings has the power to heal or hurt, inspire or discourage, empower or disenfranchise. A simple smile or gesture can have effects that ripple out across the ocean of souls, extending far beyond our horizon. The story you are about to read illustrates this principle.
I met Robert Lancaster nearly twenty years ago while I was working at The Walt Disney Company. Some of you know him. We worked together as part of a large software development team. A huge bear of a man with a bushy gray beard, Robert is an original. In spite of the outward appearance of a Disney villain (Robert’s words), he is a gentle and thoughtful man with an eclectic variety of interests. One of these is collecting decks of unusual playing cards, a hobby that persists to this day. Throughout his time at Disney, Robert maintained a “Gallery of Unusual Playing Cards” in his cubicle, and we all delighted in the whimsy and artistry of the displays.
In 2008, Robert suffered a serious stroke that left him largely paralyzed. Consequently, he has needed to use a wheelchair (an electric mobility aid) for the past six years. Having one’s ability to move taken away in this manner is challenging on many levels. Robert and I have discussed several aspects of this change because my wife has needed a wheelchair most of her adult life. The biggest adjustments, though, have to do with how other people – including people in the health care industry, believe it or not – react to and treat people in wheelchairs.
Because of my wife’s situation, I have seen this most of my married life. Consequently, I can speak with some authority. On the whole, most folks treat people in wheelchairs in the same manner they treat everyone else. Those who do not, however, display a wide range of behaviors. Some cannot make eye contact. Others will speak only with the disabled person’s companion as if the person in the chair were mentally deficient. I have seen some raise their voices to the chair-bound individual as though she were deaf, not mobility challenged. A few are openly disdainful as though the disabled person had somehow conspired to ruin their day. In each case, the encounter requires the skin of an elephant and the tact of a diplomat. Then there are the children. I will let Robert tell his story in his own words.
“It was in December of 2009 and was one of the first times I was out in public since I had been in the chair. Susan and I were in the lobby of a Denny’s waiting to settle our bill when a young family entered the restaurant. It was a Mom and Dad with their two sons, about six and ten years old.
“As we were paying, the younger boy was eyeing me and my chair while slowly edging my way, his curiosity about the chair gradually overcoming his reservations about approaching the fat, gray-bearded guy in it. (I would later come to learn that just about all boys of that age are fascinated with the chair, apparently reasoning, “It has a joystick, so it has to be cool!”) When he got to within eight feet or so (his older brother right behind, ready to keep his kid brother safe), the child looked up at me and, pointing at my chair, asked, “What is that?”
“As I tried to think of the least-scary, age-appropriate yet true answer to that, the older brother stepped up to the younger, bent low so that his head was level with his kid brother’s. Once the six-year old turned to face him, the older and wiser brother gestured towards my chair and stage-whispered, “That’s his sleigh!” (Remember, Steve, this was in December).
“The younger’s eyes got wide as saucers, and he looked up at me in wonder for confirmation of this. I smiled, nodded, and with perhaps a touch more jolliness in my voice than usual said, “Yes, the reindeer are taking a break right now!”
“The older brother gave the younger one a “you see, what did I tell you?” look, exchanged a conspiratorial grin with me, and ushered his brother over to a far corner as I drove my sleigh out into the crisp night air.
“Suddenly, being in a wheel chair wasn’t such a bad thing after all.”
In his story, Robert passed his own initiation rite and became an ambassador. He chose not to be “the bitter guy in the wheelchair” but instead an emissary of magic. Every single encounter with a fellow human being – whether it is with someone who gets it or not – becomes an opportunity to spread the light. Both of those children will likely remember that moment, and who knows how it will be remembered in the years to come or what influence it might have? The effects of that gesture have already rippled out beyond Robert’s horizon.
The lesson, of course, is not just for the disabled. It is for all of us. We each have disabilities, some more obvious than others. Each of has the choice to be bitter and cynical or positive and gracious. In the process, perhaps we can lead a few others to the light. Through our mode of being in the world, we can pass on amazing magic while inspiring others to do the same. After all, isn’t that the point of having a sleigh?
What is your favorite Ambassador story? How has someone’s “mode of being” influenced you?
Robert Lancaster Gallery
of Unusual Playing Cards