I recently read a short biography on the life of Stephen Hawking, a brilliant theoretical physicist, well known for developing the theory of black holes and their connection to the Big Bang Theory. He was also – very publically – an atheist.
As I read about Hawking, I wasn’t interested in his scientific theories – I know the biblical truth – but was impressed by his attitude toward his disability. Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, when he was only 21. His life expectancy was two years. Suddenly, time became valuable and Hawking determined not to waste it feeling sorry for himself.
In one interview, Hawking said, “My advice to other disabled people would be to concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you from doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically.”
Disabled in spirit . . .
Each of us has experienced a “thorn in our side,” that temporarily or permanently hindered us from physically being able to do the things we wanted or needed to do. Maybe you live with or have lived with a long-term illness, high blood pressure, chronic pain, broken bones, hearing loss, etc. That experience may not be due to any fault on your part. Life happens. Our grip on physical health is as delicate as the tufts of a dandelion. One blow can scatter all your dreams to the wind. Things don’t always work in our favor, even if we eat right, get proper sleep, and exercise faithfully.
But we do have control over our thoughts, our perspective, and our attitude.
Our physical body – with all its flaws and mishaps – is distinctly married to our mental health. What we suffer in the body directly affects our mental state. And, sadly, struggles with our mental health can often be more destructive and crippling than physical setbacks. Following on the heels of physical limitations is the threat of a disability in our mind…our spirit.
I spent my formative teen years in a foster home. When I aged out of the foster system at 18, I went to live with a woman from my church named Lynda. Lynda was a quadriplegic: paralyzed and bound to a wheelchair with only limited use of one hand. Lynda couldn't bathe herself or put her own socks on, but she never complained or felt sorry for herself. I moved in with Lynda, believing I was doing her a “favor” by becoming her caretaker while she provided a place for me to live. How absolutely naive I was.
Lynda had a vehicle equipped with special hand controls that allowed her to drive, and during one of my first nights with her, we were up late talking. Suddenly, Lynda came up with an idea. “Hey, let’s grab some junk food and take a drive through Chino!”
First off, Chino was cow country. Second, it was the middle of the night! But, off we went, and ended up having a great time eating snacks, blasting gospel music, driving in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, and talking.
It was the talking that did it for me.
It was many more impulsive trips like that with Lynda that allowed me to talk through a painful childhood and struggles with self-esteem as we went on to explore rock canyons, museums, desert petting zoos, and even a late-night trip to downtown Los Angeles just to–in Lynda’s words–“Check out the weirdos walking around after dark.” I learned to laugh and cry all over again–displays of emotions I had buried and protected myself from up until then. Until Lynda.
In other words, I can’t think of ten things I did for her that came close to comparing to the thousands she did for me.
Quadriplegic. Limited. Physically disabled...but not disabled in spirit.
The woman who held my hand at the birth of my first child and later became Grandma to all three of my children. The one I called “Mom” for over 25 years until God called her home. The one I often forgot was physically disabled because Lynda–as Stephen Hawking encouraged–never allowed the things she couldn’t do to hinder what she could do: Listen, pray, laugh . . . love. Oh, how she loved.
I know. You didn’t ask to be in the place you are right now. This wasn’t part of the plan. But God knows exactly where you are and, even though YOU have lost control, He hasn’t. Not even for a moment.
You may feel bound by physical struggles and limitations, but there is nothing that can bind your spirit unless you allow it. There are others who need you to show them how to pray and worship, need your words of encouragement, find strength in your smile, and are desperate for someone just to listen.
And most of those things have nothing to do with your physical ability.