The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part Two

A-Seat_At-The-TableThis is the second in a two-part post about perfectionism, disability, and the Olympics. I am grateful to all who read Part One, and wish to express my added appreciation to those who participated in the discussion of the post. Your sharing enriches our understanding of the complexity and power of the Medicine Wheel teachings.

Yesterday the Olympics came to a close; the Paralympics begin in 11 days. Saturday evening Jennie and I watched a Gimp DVD. She is planning to show it to her Expressive Therapies class, along with some material from Bill T. Jones. Its been a while since we last saw Gimp in performance so revisiting their work was a revelation.

The Paralympics is a much-needed, if under-reported competition for athletes who happen to be disabled. The Gimp Project is a collective of dancers, able-bodied and disabled. The Paralypics is a contest; Gimp is a collaboration exploring the world of disability experience.  The first seeks perfection, the latter revels in the beauty of imperfection. The Paralympics pursue inclusion, abet separate and unequal; Gimp tells stories, often casting light on the processes which support marginalization and exclusion.

There is a remarkable silence surrounding these processes, although many activists, academics, and artists have sought to illumine them. I believe they are the same social processes that erase the lived experience of marginalized individuals and groups everywhere. These systems are pervasive and largely invisible; they are also profoundly human.

The Medicine Wheel holds all of human experience, offering us a view of life as a whole. There is a place on the Wheel for everything that can be encountered, even a space for our collective fear of otherness and contagion. The Wheel reminds us that we will each encounter all that is, whether directly or through the experiences of others. Our fates are inexorably woven together; the fate of each is that of all. As we meditate on the Wheel we are encouraged to consider that while they seem real, both safety and isolation are illusory, transitory states.

The last few months I have found myself wandering the wilderness that is part of the Post Polio experience. Recent health concerns continue to bring up ancient unresolved feelings, along with worries about the future. I have found myself repeatedly thrown back to the fear and pain of the acute illness and post-illness recovery, and the social isolation imposed on me as a Polio. I am also and repeatedly reminded the effects of the virus continues to impact my life and thus the lives of those I hold dear.

I’ve been trying to understand where the experience of Post Polio might live on the Wheel. I believe, for me, now, it lies in the North, the place of aging, teaching, and eventually, making preparations to return to the Spirit World. (The North is also the place of preparation for rebirth!) The journey is complicated as I find myself trying to make sense of my nearly lifelong disability, and doing so at a place on the Wheel when it is also my task to face a declining body.

Part of the task is to acknowledge my fear of erasure. I have lived my life during an epoch in which Polio was eradicated in much of the world. I was taught that I had survived the virus and should get on with life, ignoring, as much as possible, the devastation to my body and psyche. As I noted in my last post, the issue of assimilation or “passing” is thorny. The normative prescription offers the possibility of inclusion, yet to follow that advice is to participate in a collective act of erasure, to become invisible, and thus lose Self.

Every human being comes to a place where s/he is vulnerable; each of us eventually faces the treat of erasure and the powerful emotions that accompany the threat. In a culture addicted to perfection, and dismissive of difference and need, such moments carry added fear and shame. How odd that such an essentially human experience is marginalized, leaving so many to face the North filled with loneliness and dread.

We have, I believe, relegated the task of accompanying folks on the journey through the North to the health care profession and the clergy. As a result, we have ostracized the insight and wisdom that may accompany disability, experiences of trauma, and aging.  Oddly, in doing so we have created great suffering for the very young we profess to idolize, for we have denied them context. How are they, in the face of ceaseless messages about the centrality of competition and perfection, to know they are all loveable, all sacred, beautiful, and desirable in their humanness and imperfections?

Our collective focus on being faultless sells products and drives our economy, yet blinds us to the fate of our neighbors and the world. Our deeply held collective desire for safety encourages us to abandon our elders, young people, and children, threatens our very being as a species, and steals our Souls. Still, as prophesy insists, we have options. We can risk relearning the wisdom of the Wheel, accept the complexity and terror of being human, and journey together into a Sixth World. There are, if we make it so, seats for all at the table.

We are at a crossroad. I wonder which path will we follow going forward.

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4 thoughts on “The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part Two

  1. Michael: Thanks so much for your ongoing deep reflection on living with Polio. Your writings are a precious reminder to cherish the lives we have and reflect on the gift/challenge of loving the lives we are given..

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