What I Learned About Myself From A “Hater”

I learned four things about myself this past week. I’m 54 and thought I knew myself pretty well but self-awareness is a lifelong journey, I guess. I learned these things because I received an email from a “hater” who was angry with me. When I was still agonizing over the hater’s words three days later, I decided there must be a lesson in there somewhere, one that I was obviously not getting.

Abbey was our MC at Disney World

Abbey was our MC at Disney World

The first time I read the email, I was slightly amused. It was difficult to read because it was poorly written, full of grammatical mistakes and malapropisms. It was hard to take the words seriously because they didn’t make much sense. But the second time through, I zeroed in on the names I was being called…petty, manipulative, toxic. Ouch.

My first instinct was to feel embarrassed and angry…no one likes to be called names. I knew that these words were coming from someone who was disgruntled with me. I said to myself, “You can’t win them all” and “Everyone isn’t going to like you.” But even though people say nice things to me all the time, those insults kept resonating in my brain. I wondered why it mattered so much to me that one person said unflattering things about me.

I fretted and worried over those words. Am I petty, manipulative and toxic? Clearly, the hater thinks I am but do other people think of me that way? If I know for a fact that there are ten people who like and respect me, why do I care that there’s one who doesn’t? Why is it so easy to believe the haters and so hard to believe those who praise us? Am I the only person who gives too much credence to the words of haters and not enough credence to the words of supporters?

On their way to the stage!

On their way to the stage!

Whenever I receive negative feedback, I try to objectively decide if it has validity. If I decide the negatives are valid, then I decide whether they are something I can, or am willing, to change. And then I try to make appropriate changes to address them. Since I didn’t believe these insults are valid, I thought there was nothing I needed to change or correct. And yet, I couldn’t shake off those words. Then I had a “lightbulb” moment.

I realized that my reaction to the hater’s words prove that I’m not petty, toxic and manipulative (if I was any of those three things, I wouldn’t care what anyone said about me). But my reaction did highlight four other unflattering things: I always want to be right; I always want to have the last word; I am way too good at striking back with a vengeance when someone makes me mad or hurts me; and I can’t tolerate being rejected.

Project UP at the Downtown Disney Ampitheatre

Project UP at the Downtown Disney Ampitheatre

For three days, I had my finger poised over the “reply” button. I’m proud to say that I didn’t ever push it but boy, did I want to! I wanted to refute every single accusation and set the record straight so I could prove that I was right. I wanted to hit back, way below the belt. I played out imaginary conversations in my head, thinking of all the ways I could use my exceptional verbal skills to emotionally slash the hater. I was itching to have the final say.

I was indignant at the rejection…how dare they think these unkind things about me? Don’t they know that our local newspaper says I’m one of the 10 Most Influential People in town? Don’t they know that I am supposed to be universally revered, just because I’m me? Don’t they remember all the nice things I did for them, all the times I overlooked their mistakes and helped them out of messes? How dare that hater…did they not read the rulebook that says “Everyone must like Debra, all the time, no matter what?”

I can’t believe I just admitted thinking all of that. It is pretty scary inside my head sometimes.

I was so caught up in imagining retaliation that I didn’t acknowledge the lovely thank you note I got from someone and I didn’t reply to the beautiful Facebook comments on the pictures of JSAP’s triumphant performance at Disney World. I can’t get those three days back, but I can go forward with the intention of never repeating these mistakes if I can help it.

Anna's face says it all!

Anna’s face says it all!

When I need inspiration, all I have to do is look around me at the example the 503 children and adults with special needs in JSAP show me every day. They don’t waste time plotting revenge. They don’t hit below the belt. When they are wrong, they admit it. When they are rejected – which happens to them every single day – they turn to their friends and family for reassurance of their value and let the haters roll off their backs.

So, the next time I encounter a hater, I am going to try to remember these things:

I am not entitled to have everyone like me.

I’d rather be content than be right.

It will not make me feel better to have the last word because getting in one more round of hurt only prolongs a dispute, it never resolves one.

It doesn’t matter how old I am or how well I think I know myself…I will always have lessons to learn. I’d love to be able to say, “I’ve got this…I’ve learned it all” someday but I’m a work in progress. And I’ve got life’s best teachers to help me!

P.S. I realize that writing this post could be construed as a great way to get in the last word. My intention is to share what I learned about myself after reflecting on my reaction.

P.P.S. I’m also not fishing for compliments but I’d to love hear about a time when you’ve been in a similar situation and what you learned from it.

Project UP and Goofy at their Master Class

Project UP and Goofy at their Master Class

 

 

Eight Ways People With Special Needs Are Better Than Me

As I prepared to post this, I thought about the “Joy in the Journey” that I’ve experienced because of my friends with special needs. If you love, “Welcome to Holland,” please watch our dance interpretation of Emily Perl Kingsley’s powerful words:

 

To My Friends With Special Needs:

I usually write about you but I decided it was time that I write to you instead. I want all 503 of you, whether you’re three or sixty-five, whether I’ve known you for a few months or for years, to know that I see the differences in us.

I see how we conduct ourselves and I find your way to be far superior to mine. I want you to know that I’m trying to be a better person by following your example. I’m making progress, little by little…day by day. When you’re as old – and as flawed – as I am, it takes a minute.

Here are just eight of the things that make you a better person than me and that I am trying to change:

1. The way you treat me is how I should treat other people. You accept me exactly as I am. You never judge me and when I let you down, you forgive me completely.  When I do something right, you celebrate and when I’m wrong, you tell me so…and then you always give me a second chance or a third chance or as many chances as I need.

The way I treat other people? Let’s just say I’ve got some work to do.

The Connection in Concert

The Connection in Concert

2. You don’t let negative emotions define your life. People who don’t know you the way I do may think that you are always happy or that you don’t experience the whole range of human emotions in the same way “normal” people do. But I know that you hurt, just like me. I know you feel frustration and disappointment, fear and anger, shame and guilt, heartbreak and bitterness. The difference between us is that you don’t let these negatives emotions dominate you.

I’m bogged down by years of emotional baggage. I avoid trying new things because I’m afraid to fail. I throw myself pity parties on a regular basis. I worry what others think of me. I sometimes do things just because my ego needs to be bolstered or because I want to win someone’s approval.

By contrast, you may be afraid to fail but you try anyway. You don’t let the opinions of others stop you from doing something you want to do. You are constantly underestimated by others, marginalized by our society and left out of things the rest of us take for granted. You don’t allow these injustices to get you down…you soldier on, usually with a smile on your face.

Now, I don’t mean to infantilize you or make light of what I know is your desire to be accepted. You feel every slight, you are aware of every stare and insult, and sometimes, it must be more than you can stand. But you choose to accept the challenges life has sent with grace and dignity. You could make the choice I make and allow negatives to inhibit you but thankfully, you don’t.

And you do not know how to feel sorry for yourself…that’s just not your style.

Project UP rehearsal

Project UP rehearsal

3. You willingly display your vulnerability. Some of you are plagued by doubts and worries or live with intense anxiety. You may not like to be touched or you may not be able to tolerate changes in your routine.

When I’m anxious or worried or overwhelmed, I retreat and wall myself off. I put up my defenses and resist anyone who tries to encourage me. “I’m fine,” I say to people who ask what’s wrong, or “Nothing,” I say to loved ones who wonder what’s bothering me.

Unlike me, you’re not ashamed to ask for help. You are willing to admit your insecurities. I spend my time trying to hide mine.

4. You understand that words are often the very thing that prevents us from really communicating with each other.

Some of you are not able to speak but you communicate much better than I do.

I talk all the time (mostly about myself in one form or another) and yet, my communication with people is often guarded and cynical. I am frequently mistrustful of the intentions of others.

For you, the absence of words means that you communicate with your eyes, your hands, your movements, your heart. You know that words are not a requisite for connecting with others.

5. You say what you mean and you mean what you say. When I first got to know you, I found it disarming that you are so utterly honest and so totally literal and transparent. You have no concept of insincerity or sarcasm or anything other than complete authenticity. You do not have the capacity to be disingenuous.

I am manipulative. I’m not afraid to throw my weight around or to use intimidation if I think its necessary. My own self-interest is of paramount importance to me. You don’t realize this about me – my duplicity and selfishness – and I hope you never do because I couldn’t stand for you to be disappointed in me.

6. You don’t understand recriminations or blame or fault-finding. You understand forgiveness.You often get angry, at yourself or at others or at the unfairness of life in general, but you express your anger and then…you’re over it.

I can get mad quicker and stay mad longer than anyone I know. I’m still holding onto grudges against people for perceived slights from decades ago.

You get your anger out and then you move on…quickly and without any fuss.

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

Nathan at NRG Dance Convention in Atlanta

7. You do not define yourself by your success…or by your failures. When I accomplish something, I boast. Maybe not out loud, but I post on social media or I let that inner voice in my head tell me that I’m a big deal.  I’m too eager to tout my credentials, show off my resume, display my awards.

Nothing I accomplish comes close to the things I’ve seen you achieve – first steps when when doctors said you would never walk, words that therapists said you’d never speak, challenging dance combinations and songs that you master.

You are competitive and enjoy a good standing ovation or pat on the back. When you accomplish something, you celebrate…with gusto. But after the celebration is over, you just move on to the next challenge.

8. You understand that it’s better to happy than it is to be right. I hate to be wrong and I am reluctant to admit I don’t have all the answers. I want to have the last word.

You are perfectly comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” There are only three phrases you use as the “last word” and they are “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” or “We disagree but I love you anyway.”

Samuel in "Christmas in the City"

Samuel in “Christmas in the City”

Thank you for teaching me these lessons. And for giving me as many chances as I need to get it right. Be patient with me…this is gonna take a while!

With all my love,

Debra

 

Cooking Competition Serves Up New Leaders

Rocket Chef logo copy

The Judges Table

We had a really cool event at Merrimack Hall last week. Rocket Chef: Clash of the Culinary Titans was a sell-out, a big deal for a first-time event. Rocket Chef attracted a diverse audience and brought a lot of newcomers to our venue…they were old and young, foodies and wanna-be chefs, fans of the competitors and friends of the event organizers. The competitors exhibited their amazing skills and talents in a live cook-off. Not only did the organizers raise enough money through corporate sponsorships to pay for the equipment needed to mount this event – stoves, refrigerators, chef’s tables, dishes and utensils of every variety, blenders, food processors and more – but they also netted nearly $18,000 in profits which will be split between our Johnny Stallings Arts Program and The Food Bank of North Alabama.

Like I said, Rocket Chef was…really cool.

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall's production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

Event organizers and Merrimack Hall’s production team turned our stage into a kitchen!

But as cool as the event turned out to be, the really cool thing about Rocket Chef was the five young professionals who conceived, organized and executed it.

Kyla Green, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Aaron Caradonna and Lauren Battle are all in their late 20’s or early 30’s. When they started this project back in June, the did not know each other. Participants in Leadership Huntsville/Madison County’s Connect program for young professionals, they were randomly placed in a small group and tasked with doing something to address the issue of hunger in our community. They started with no resources, no budget, no precedent for what they wanted to do. All they had was their idea and a single-minded determination to bring their idea to life.

They all have full time jobs. Some of them have babies at home. None of them had much volunteer experience…come to think of it, they’re too young to have much experience at anything! They are in the early stages of careers that are sure to be brilliant – in banking, insurance, hospital administration, broadcast journalism and corporate law.

They utilized every contact in their address books, they called on anyone who could advise them, they listened to everyone who offered guidance, they used every opportunity they came across to build a consensus for this event. They tenaciously invested themselves in their idea and refused to give up…even when they were thrown a curve ball at least once a day. The were motivated by a total commitment to a worthy cause, which is what carried them through the longest days I imagine they’ve ever worked.

The undertaking was monumental in every regard. Just from our end, the logistics were staggering. We’ve presented a lot of things on our stage over the past seven years but four chefs…cooking in three-rounds…live…in front of an audience? Not so much. Props to Martez Clemons, our Production Coordinator, and Melissa Reynolds, our Program and Operations Director, for the brilliant job they did in coordinating everything from ticket sales to stage set up, including but not limited to figuring out how to power up four stoves and all the appliances at the same time, how to light the stage, how to vent the steam coming from the stoves so that our sprinkler system wasn’t activated and more…and more..and more.

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Shawn Duvall of the Pepper Pig and Andy Howery of The Bottle battle it out in the final round, with Shawn emerging as the first Rocket Chef Champion

Merrimack Hall’s involvement was just one piece in a huge puzzle that included other non-profits, restaurants, grocery stores, electricians, appliance stores…the sheer number of individuals who bought into this idea and donated their expertise, goods and services blows my mind.

The five event organizers were on a steep learning curve with a short deadline. They had to trust each other, they had to communicate with each other, they had to coordinate every detail with us and The Food Bank, they had to imagine every contingency and prepare for it. And they did it!

The reason I’m so impressed by Kyla, Clarissa, Mike, Aaron and Lauren is because when I was their age, I was just beginning to dip my toes into the volunteer arena. Over the past 25 years, I’ve been on hundreds of committees, worked on dozens of events, been involved in the creation of new projects and my volunteer career culminated with the creation of my own organization that is serving a need that no one in our community has ever attempted to serve. But I didn’t come into my own, didn’t feel the passion it takes to put everything on the line for a cause you believe in until I was about 40 – a good 10-15 years later than the five wunderkids who pulled off Rocket Chef.

When the event ended, the five of them were very proud of themselves…and rightfully so. They celebrated as a team, just the way they did everything else involved with the event. They spent the week coming and going from Merrimack Hall…cleaning up, arranging for storage of appliances until next year’s event, making sure that all unused food was delivered to Manna House and The Food Bank of North Alabama. When they had wrapped it all up they looked…well, they looked exhausted. But they also looked like different people from the five folks who came to me with this wild idea in August.

They looked like seasoned pros…and more importantly, they seemed transformed by their work. I could see it in their eyes and remember that feeling…the first time you realize that you CAN make a difference, you CAN do something to make things better. They are now empowered…emboldened…confident in themselves and I know they will take on bigger challenges in the future. Once you’ve successfully done something that has a positive impact on someone else’s life, you want to experience that feeling again…and again.

Our community’s next generation of servant leaders has been christened and I can’t wait to see what these five people do next!

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

Kathryn Strickland of The Food Bank with event organizers Aaron Caradonna, Clarissa McClain, Mike Conrad, Kyla Green and Lauren Battle

 

 

What Happened When A Radio Talk Show Host Used The “R” Word On Air

This post contains graphically offensive racial and ethnic slurs that are not a part of my vocabulary…I am using them to illustrate a point. I am deeply offended by the use of words that disparage or diminish any group of people.

Words…what power they have.

The words we choose to use can open a dialogue or shut one down; they can make a friend or an enemy; they can forge a bond or create a divide.

This morning, local radio station owner Michael St. John was hosting his daily morning talk show when he unintentionally ignited a firestorm by his repeated use of the “R” word. I didn’t hear it myself but one of the parents in my program did, and she called me. She was hurt and outraged. She said, “You are our voice…please speak for us” so I called the station to see if Mr. St. John would speak with me. We talked for nearly an hour and I think both of us came away feeling positive.

On-air, Michael relayed the story of two separate events that happened to him yesterday that involved two people with special needs, one who worked in a grocery store and the other at a fast food restaurant. In both instances, the person with special needs was unable to perform the job duties they had been assigned. In both instances, everyone involved had become frustrated – the people with special needs and the customers they were tasked with serving. Michael explained to me that he was trying to ask a general question…is there some sort of governmental mandate that is requiring businesses to hire people with special needs even if they aren’t qualified for the jobs?

I should mention here that Michael’s radio station is a conservative talk station, which helped me make sense of his “big government interference” theory. I should also mention that there is no governmental mandate to hire people with special needs and that I strongly encourage businesses to give jobs to people with special needs when they can. We have two employees with special needs who make valuable contributions to our organization each day.

In both of these instances, the person with special needs had difficulty making appropriate change for a purchase. Michael wondered why they were put in the position of operating the cash register if they weren’t skilled enough to do so, which is a valid question. Personally, I think the inability of some fast food workers to make change has more to do with our failing school system and our minimum wage than it does with having special needs but that’s a political ball of worms that I don’t care to open in my blog.

People didn’t hear Michael’s question or understand his point because all they heard was his choice of words…retardedretardretarded afflictions…and his repeated use of “them” and “those people.”

When I asked him about his use of these words, he was adamant in his intention that he used these words to describe the diagnosis of the person and did not mean to cast aspersions on them. And I was stunned to hear that Michael actually has a step-daughter with an intellectual disability. Turns out, Michael is not offended by the “R” word as a parent and did not seem to be aware that its use is no longer deemed appropriate.

I wondered how a person – especially one who has a family member with a disability – could be so oblivious to the fact that the “R” word is no longer acceptable but I reminded myself that he lives in a small community in North Alabama, which could explain a lot. Rednecks can be slow to catch onto trends.

Ouch…that stings because I, too am a redneck from North Alabama.

When I tried to explain to him that the “R” word is inflammatory and negative, he was a bit defensive in his stance that you can’t eliminate a word from the dictionary just because some people find it offensive.

Here is one thing Michael said to me (paraphrased):

People with retarded afflictions shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

So I asked him to substitute other offensive words in this sentence and see if he thought it would be acceptable to say them live on the radio, like this:

Faggots/niggers/chinks/kikes/dagos/wet backs/rag heads/crackers shouldn’t be put in jobs that don’t match their skill set.

I think a “lightbulb” went off for Michael.

The surprising thing was that the longer we talked, the more I liked Michael, even though I was primed to take his head off. He truly didn’t intend to offend people with special needs or their families. He truly intended to simply ask what he thinks is a valid question. He is truly grateful for the job his step-daughter has and knows that she takes pride in having a job she can do independently and well. He truly wants other people with special needs to have that same employment experience- he doesn’t want them to be placed in jobs that are inappropriate for them because he truly hated to see two people with special needs becoming frustrated when they were unable to be successful in their assigned tasks.

Michael said to me, “When a door slams in your face, a window will open and I think this happened today so that you and I would have this conversation.” He’s promised to issue an apology/clarification on air tomorrow and has invited me to be his guest on his show in September, an invitation I’m happy to accept.

I may not agree with his politics or enjoy conservative talk radio but he’s not a bad guy…he just made very poor word choices. I do the same thing every day when I drop “F” bombs around. There are certainly people who tune me out or become outraged with me because I say “fuck,” even if they agree with my message. So a lightbulb went off for me, too.

Although I’m sure I will continue to drop “F” bombs when I believe they are appropriate and while “fuck” may be offensive to some people, it is an adjective or a verb, not a noun used to disparage someone.

Which brings me back around to words and their power. We have advocacy groups telling us every day that certain words aren’t acceptable, from the NAACP to the LGBTQ. So I am adding my voice to the chorus of voices that are trying to tell our society that we are all more alike than we are different…and not just in matters of race, ethnicity or sexual preference.

It’s not okay to call anyone names, people.

People with special needs are people…they are not just a diagnosis or a stereotype. They are people with feelings and they deserve to be respected, by us and by our words.

The Secret about Parents of Kids with Special Needs

 

Alisa and Anna Chilton

Alisa and Anna

I follow a lot of blogs. One of my favorites is Special Needs Mom, by a gifted writer named Suzanne Perryman. She posted an entry on April 14, 2013, that pops back up in newsfeeds occassionally and during the past week, I’ve noticed that several of the moms of students in my program have reposted it. Click here to read the post.

As I re-read this post, I realized that I know a secret about parents of kids with special needs, a secret they won’t tell you because they probably don’t even realize it …

The secret is that parents whose kids have special needs are brave.

What else do you call a person who has faced their worst fear and emerged changed for the better? In the past seven years, I’ve met hundreds of parents and I’ve only encountered one who was bitter, a young mom who’s daughter has cerebral palsy and who told me that her daughter was too disabled … more disabled than any other child and couldn’t possibly be part of my program. The rest of the parents I’ve met are … well, they are just brave. And brave people rarely tout their bravery.

They didn’t start out that way.

They started out on the road to parenthood just like I did … with a vision that did not include hospitals, therapists, resource classrooms. They were a couple with a shared dream of creating that perfect family that we all want. Maybe they imagined their child would be a great athlete or a great artist or a great engineer. While they were expecting, they imagined all those life events their child would experience … playdates, school plays, college, a wedding. For some of them, that imagining came to a halt during pregnancy, for others the end of the dreams didn’t come until later.

But at some point, life said to the parents I know:

“Sorry, you don’t get that dream. You better get busy trying to imagine a different one.”

And so that’s what they did.

 

Connor and Brian Furber

Connor and Brian

 

They’ve taken the disappointment, the fear, the anger that they must have felt and have turned the other cheek. They refuse to let anything negative shape the rest of their lives or cast a shadow on the lives their children will have. They were dealt a blow that must have laid them flat on their backs, but they’ve gotten back up again, put a smile back on their faces and they’ve re-imagined the future without rancor and without regret.

There must be times when the heartbreak returns. Maybe a girlfriend tells them about her daughter, who made the cheerleading squad or maybe their buddy tells them about teaching his son to drive – and there it is … that pain, that regret, that feeling of, “Yeah, that’s what I thought I’d be doing.”

I think bravery is doing something, even when you don’t want to or are afraid and never allowing yourself to become resentful about it. Which is exactly what the parents I know do.

I’ve experienced a miniscule taste of what it might be like. Austin began to lose touch with his classmates around 9th grade and for the rest of his high school years, we were caught up in the drama of drug addiction. A few weeks ago, I ran into the mom of one of his kindergarten classmates and was startled when she told me that her daughter had graduated from college back in May.

“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself. “If Austin hadn’t spent six years using drugs, he’d be graduating from college now?” For a brief time, I let myself think about all that we missed … prom, high school graduation, fraternities and campus visits.

And as I thought about those lost dreams I’d had for Austin, I wondered if I would have turned out like that one parent I met who was bitter that her child had cerebral palsy or if I would have been brave enough to embrace an unexpected and uninvited path.

Once I said to a parent, “I don’t know how you do it,” not realizing that this would be offensive to her. Parenting her child was not some onerous task, some hardship she had to endure … parenting her child was a gift in life.

Was she like that to start with, before she knew her child would have a disability?

Or did having a child with a disability turn her into a resilient and brave woman who could accept that she was going to have to travel a road she never asked to travel?

 

Ben, Carly and Gina Bender

Ben, Carly and Gina

 

Some of the bravest parents I’ve met are ones whose adult children have disabilities … those parents who insisted on bringing their children home from the hospital back in the days when doctors told them not to.

One father told me that when his son was born, in 1960, the doctor said,

“Put him in an institution. You’ll visit him once a week at first, then every six weeks and before you know it, you’ll never even remember you had him.”

Those parents brought their children home when there were no resources, no therapists or early interventions, when their children were not even allowed to go to school. I know so many parents who have retired and still have their children living at home and imagine that they worry every single day about what will happen if their children outlive them. But that doesn’t stop them from fully embracing the path life placed them on, despite what they might have imagined one day so long ago.

All I know to say is … that’s what bravery looks like.

The next time you see a parent of child who has special needs, remember this secret they will never tell you … when you see them in the grocery store or at your school or at your church …

You are in the presence of a person who is truly brave.

And the next time you are disappointed in something or life hands you an unexpected twist, and take inspiration from their bravery.

Having Choices

The Connection field trip to Garden Cove Produce

The Connection field trip to Garden Cove Produce

 

For some reason, people tell me their problems. I avoid eye contact with people beside me on airplanes or in line at the dry cleaners because next thing I know, they are telling me about their awful spouses or their problems with work. I have found myself caught in conversations with complete strangers about the most personal of topics, like the time I was minding my own business at an Alabama football game and a woman proceeded to tell me all about her menstrual cycle, in gory detail. Completely unsolicited …

My friends used to unburden themselves to me like I was Dr. Phil or something. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic audience for my friends’ complaints and worries, happy to dispense my sage wisdom while telling myself that I must have my shit together or else they wouldn’t be asking for my advice or trusting me with their deepest secrets. Not so much anymore. These days I’m too busy – and so are most of my friends – to engage in the sort of self-involved pity parties and pop psychology that I used to find so interesting.

Every now and then, I’ll end up in a conversation with a friend who wants to tell me about the wretched condition of their life …

“I’m so unhappy in my marriage”
“My business is failing”
“My husband doesn’t understand me”
“I shouldn’t have gotten married to him/her/at all”
“I don’t like the girl my son is dating”

And on and on and on.

I’m never sure if they want me to sympathize with them, offer them solutions or just let them whine. A few years ago, I would have been inclined to listen with empathy and then offer advice that I’d heard on Oprah but these days, I find myself wanting to tell them to shut the hell up and put on their big girl (or big boy) panties.

It seems to me that most of the time when people are dissatisfied with something in their lives, the real problem isn’t what they’re dissatisfied with … the real problem is that they are unwilling to take action or make a tough choice. So you’re not satisfied in your marriage? Then fix it. You don’t like where your career is headed? Then change it. Wish you hadn’t gotten married to him/her/at all? Too late, you did, so find a way to make it work.

Of course, it can be daunting to take the first step towards making changes that need to be made but you have to start somewhere, with some sort of action. I would rather do the wrong thing than do nothing and have a hard time understanding people who would rather wallow in misery than take action or make a choice. And the longer I work with people who have special needs, the more adamant in this opinion I become.

See, those of us who are “typical” have choices. People with special needs, in many cases don’t have choices. People with special needs learn to be happy with what they have because often, they have no other option. Like a woman in our day habilitation program for adults … I’ll call her Margaret (because there’s no one in my program for adults whose name is Margaret).

Margaret is older than me and has an intellectual disability. She has no family to speak of and lives in a group home. Margaret has anxiety over trying new things…new activities, new foods, new people, changes in routine cause her tremendous angst. Margaret doesn’t get to make many choices in her life…she has to roll with the punches life throws her even when she’d rather not. When we added yoga to our daily activities, we had to coax her to give it a try. I watched her fight off the anxiety and force herself to try something that was frightening to her. Margaret powers through things, even when they’re scary or not particularly appealing to her and she doesn’t complain.

 

Connection yoga class

Connection yoga class

 

A couple of weeks ago, we took the adults in The Connection on a field trip to our local farmer’s market. I was afraid Margaret might have a hard time on the trip, worrying about how we would get there or what time we would come back. When we walked into the market, I was standing beside her and when she cried, “Oh!” I thought she was upset. But when I turned to ask her what was wrong, I saw tears in her eyes and a wide smile of genuine pleasure on her face.

“Debra,” she said, “thank you for bringing us here. I haven’t been inside a grocery store in 15 years.”

Wow. Such a simple thing that I take for granted – no, that I complain about – brought Margaret such joy. As I watched her walk through the market, touching all the produce, I thought about all those times that I’ve complained about my problems, or listened to others complain about theirs, and I was ashamed.

 

Cool photo by Katie Stapely

Cool photo by Katie Stapely

 

I gave each adult $5.00 to buy something and was even more ashamed when Margaret asked me if I had enough money to buy sweet potatoes for everyone in her home … ashamed because Margaret was thinking about other people when I so often only think of myself. She started to get anxious about how she would be able to carry all the potatoes home with her, whether they would fit in the van, worried she might forget them but as I calmed her down and told her that we would make sure the potatoes went home with her, she grabbed my arm and said,

“Thank you for making me come today. I didn’t really want to but I’m so glad I did.”

I’ve had so many moments like this in the past six years … moments when I glimpse through the words or actions of people with special needs exactly how the rest of us ought to live.

 

Paul learning about nutrition

Paul learning about nutrition

 

I don’t get this right all the time but I’m trying so hard to remember it … that if there’s something in my life that isn’t working, I should fix it. If there’s something I’m doing wrong, I need to correct it. If there’s someone I’m hurting, I need to stop it. If there’s something I could be doing to make the world better for someone else, I should get busy.

Because I can … because I have choices … because I can complain about things I wish were different or I can choose to do something – anything – to make things different.

 

Starring…my favorite kids with special needs

Video shoot, June 2012

Video shoot, June 2012

This video will make your Monday!

Two summers ago, we were approached by some folks in Hollywood who were interested in making a feature film based on JSAP. The idea is still floating around out there, somewhere in that strange land called LA. Who knows…it could still happen someday. Even if it never materializes, those filmmakers left us with something priceless – a beautiful video intended to give a glimpse into the personalities of some of our students and to show how endearing, funny and fabulous they are. So, let’s go back two years, when Darby was still here, when Connor was a little boy, when Melissa had long hair and when it was Katie’s 18th birthday….