“O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
That’s the last line of America’s national anthem. While it is a fine notion for an anthem, it is also a little exclusive.
We all have ideas about people who epitomize bravery. Typically, though not always, they are people who rush into burning buildings or pull people out of burning cars, they are our soldiers (land, air, and sea, all branches), some of our athletes, particularly the ones who pursue their physical gifts without huge player or endorsement contracts. They may even be people we know who faced some mortal illness and emerged with their dignity. These people are all brave.
There are braver souls who receive no plaudits at all. They are people who struggle with physical handicaps that make venturing outside and into an endless barrage of inquisitive stares an act of considerable fortitude. They are assisted from a vehicle, they wheel themselves into a workplace that accepts them for what they can do, for who they are beyond a twisted spine, paralyzed limbs, impaired sight or hearing, an odd twitching or rictus grin, scarred face or stunted growth. They are the people who are not like “most of us,” whatever that means and are, through some inescapable misfortune, part of a population of “others” among “us.” It must be difficult to emerge from the refuge of their homes, from the tedium of doing the same thing every day out of sight from the insensitive, sometimes unintended curiosity radiating out from the rest of “us.” It may be difficult to move at all for some of these folks who come out and do what they need to do to participate in what we all too often take for granted. Within their minds, there must be at least a small thought that it would be easy to do nothing. It would be simpler to stay among people who already know the public face of their infirmity, who can more easily ignore their appearance and interact with the person they’ve always been.
As I write all this, it is easy to imagine these folks as being nursed in and out of their bed using an appropriate lift, into a motorized wheelchair that can adjust to their specific body shape, who have wide halls, who have ramps and large, well-fitted bathrooms, who live in a single story home with a garage and driveway which facilitate getting in and out of their vehicle with a modicum of privacy. But there are many in this country and around the world who know none of these comforts that accommodate their otherness. They live in an apartment building that doesn’t have a reliable elevator. They have home aid that comes once a week—if at all—-to do shopping. They have no family and no friends or acquaintances. They just have whomever the bureaucrats send to take care of them. They don’t have a job. They have nothing and are not free to be brave and come out to be among our impertinent eyes and assumptive thoughts.
And there are the folks who have absolutely nothing wrong with them as far as we can see but are prisoners of unique twists in their psychological composition. They have done nothing to be the person they are but they are afraid of the world outside and what they think we’ll think. We don’t know but it doesn’t matter. Their fear is as just crippling whether we are aware or not. They come out but the voices, which are all too real, may come back at any time and tell them that we’re the mad ones. Or they may slip into a polar episode and momentarily are betrayed by their own behavior… or are afraid that this may happen and can’t bear the thought of leaving the sanctity of their cell.
This is the thing, folks. We all have something we are trying to get right and many things we have done wrong. We all may look like we’re walking upright and doing fine—we probably respond “great!” when asked how we are. But we are all dragging something around that we wish weighed less than it does. If we’re young, perhaps we haven’t messed up yet (but I bet we have). We may not have disappointed someone we once valued (but I bet we have). We may have worked as hard as we can every time we had a chance (but I bet we didn’t). We have no business staring at others when we have our own scars to mend.
We are—ALL—only as free as the person immobilized by poverty and illness. We can only hope to be as brave as the person who ventures out among us in spite of their physical or mental state. We could all probably do a better job of making their bravery less of an issue and more of a cause they can celebrate in private. When they get home and realize that it was a good day.
For that to happen, “the rest of us” must learn to behave in a more welcoming manner.