X-ray Vision

Looking through the chaff to find the wheat

by Jonah Berger on November 1, 2008 - 10:47am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 6

Some of my smaller toes curl under as a result of my disability. When I walk barefoot in my apartment over the tiles of my kitchen and bathroom, sometimes my toe will get pinned in the cracks between the tiles. It hurts. I have noticed that sometimes in my reaction to it I say, “You [four-syllable expletive]!” or “You son of a [expletive]!” The cussing is one thing. But the “you” part interests me even more. As if I am mad at someone or something. For the pain, for my disability. For the small odds of stepping right in the crack as opposed to the large and smooth surface area of the tiles themselves. Who am I talking to? To God? To fate? To my toes?
— Journal entry, October 2006

There’s a certain mentality I see in those who deal with any kind of struggle in life, a tool that they use to handle and deal with this struggle. It’s the attempt to see the good in the struggle. Does it make the struggle disappear? No. Yet I’ve found that this mentality helps put the struggle into a better perspective, or at least a more palatable one.

In this snapshot with his fellow Camp Ramblewood counselors, the author is in the front row, second from left. His friend Brandt is to his left. During their summer together, the two young men developed an unspoken bond.

As a result of my disability, I’ve had very little choice but to be concerned for the struggles of others, because I’ve relied so much on their concern for mine. My disability has given me the desire to see others’ struggles and to help them to minimize them. I’ve learned to take my familiarity with pain and use it to empathize with others. My disability has taught me humility, at least in the physical sense. I’ve learned to appreciate strength through a perspective impossible to possess without a disability.

I must say that one of my favorite silver linings of having a disability is what I call X-ray vision. I receive a wide variety of reactions to me as a person with a disability. And the common denominator that ties these various reactions together is that they allow me to see people’s hearts. I can see people’s strengths and weakness when they’re dealing with me. It’s as if I have X-ray vision into one part of who they are.

Over the years I’ve become better at using this X-ray power. For example, I used to judge a quiet response to my disclosure of having Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) as a lack of concern or feeling about it. Yet, those quiet people are often the ones who later gave me assistance on a hike or similar challenge without using their words. It taught me that some people would rather show their support through action.

Enter Brandt Lewis, my shining example of the X-ray at work. In my summers as a camp counselor at Camp Ramblewood in Darlington, Md., when I was about 17 or 18, I met Brandt Lewis. Brandt was also a counselor at Ramblewood. He was from Arizona and a truly interesting guy. Brandt was also a very good-looking guy, and he was fully aware of this. As a result of being a good-looking guy, Brandt was used to having his way with women. He was a player from start to finish. He was on his game all the time, and after a few summers at Ramblewood, Brandt developed a reputation that was less than favorable. He was kind of a jerk. He very rarely spoke with sincerity, and he very rarely treated women (or men, for that matter) with a great deal of respect. Brandt was in it for Brandt, or so it would seem.

For whatever combination of reasons, I always got along with him. I liked Brandt. He made me laugh and I did the same in return. By the last summer that Brandt and I were at camp together, he and I had talked a small amount about my disability. Nothing of major substance, but it’s fair to say that he was aware of my condition.

Each night of camp, after the kids had gone to sleep, a quarter of the staff would stay back to look after them. That left three-quarters of the staff free to go into town and forget that we were childcare workers, if only for a few hours. When the kids were asleep, the group would gather and walk up to the parking lot together.

Jonah Berger, 35, is a native of Rockville, Md., who has spent the last 10 years enjoying life in Denver. He founded and runs a business called The Rhythm Within, a therapeutic mentoring service for children and young adults with special needs. This column was excerpted from his book He Walks Like a Cowboy,which is available through amazon.com or iUniverse.com    (see review).

It was dark and to get to the parking lot, we had to walk up a long hill and cross a small field. The small field was no more than about 200 yards across, but it wasmade of uneven ground, filled with craters and dips, and was completely overgrown with tall grass, allowing no view as to where the dips and holes were located. It was a disabled person’s minefield.

For the most part, I was still in the phase of my journey with CMT where I kept my fear and discomfort to myself. I didn’t want to be seen as different. I would dread that field as it approached, and when the group would start walking across it, I would simply slow down a bit and take it at the most normal pace that my fear and feet could muster.

Except for the nights when Brandt and I were both part of the town-bound crew. On those nights, it looked something like this: The group of about 25 staff would be walking up the hill and laughing, and when we got to the edge of the field, the group would keep walking at their pace, barely noticing thatthey had entered the pothole field of doom. Except that Brandt, each night that he was with the group, would always slow down a bit at the edge of the field, and subtly position himself about one foot ahead of me. He would never look back or speak a word, but he just walked ahead of me with his hand held out behind him. This guy, this player who had little respect for women, a guy most people had written off as a total jerk, was the one member of that whole group who never missed a chance to be my guide through that field.

Most nights, we would walk across that field just fine. Me uneasy, and Brandt with his hand behind him. But when I would stumble or my foot would land in an invisible hole, I would grab his hand to keep from falling, and he would be right there for me. I don’t think anyone else in the group ever noticed that this went on, but I did. I’ve never forgotten it. It is a glowing example of X-ray vision.

As a result of my disability, I was able to see a side of Brandt, a side of his truest heart that most people never would have seen and probably wouldn’t have thought existed. I was fortunate to have that vision of him. He’s a good guy who made a lifelong impression on me. There have been countless others who have helped me in this way over the years, countless others who have lent a hand or an ear without me ever having to ask for it.

I use my X-ray vision in all of those moments to see into the true heart of people. And more times than not, I see only good things.

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