If you are in a wheelchair, you will know what I mean when I say that I often get the wheelchair treatment. This involves entirely unnecessary apologies and friendliness from strangers when I’m out and about.
For example, sometimes I will roll into an aisle at the grocery store and a guy will enter the same aisle at the opposite end and for some reason make a deprecative gesture and whisper-shout, “Sorry!” A similar thing sometimes happens when I’m rolling on the sidewalk. A car will go past and I will see that same “sorry” gesture.
I also get socially ambushed pretty frequently. It’s mostly older people that do this. I’ll be at the museum or farmers market or someplace, and some lady will come up and just start talking to me like we are old pals. Not only that, their tone almost always sounds like the one adults use when they talk to little kids or the developmentally challenged. Last weekend at the State Fair a passing guy said to me, “Looks like you’re having fun.” Yes sir, being handicapped is a blast.
At the same state fair we were looking at the menu at one of the food booths. We were not in line. A middle aged lady and her mother started to order and then stopped. The lady said to me, “Oh, you were in front of us.” I said, “No we weren’t.” She said, “I think you were.” I said, “Actually, we were not even in line.” The lady and her mom hesitated, and then said, “I think you were ahead of us.” I said, “Look, we will go ahead of you if you want, but we were not even in line.” They looked kind of deflated and mumbled something, and proceeded to order their tacos.
I noticed the lady was wearing mala beads, a Buddhist rosary, wrapped around her wrist like a bracelet. Later on I thought about it and thought, she was just trying to be a good Buddhist, to be kind. I should appreciate that. Well, I do, but it also brought to mind the Zen concept of appropriateness, and the parable of the ant.
A lady is walking along and sees an ant traversing her path. She worries that the ant might get stepped on, so she gently picks it up and moves it to the side of the path, where it is immediately gobbled up by a bird.
The question this parable raises of course is, was it appropriate for her to try to help this ant? The outcome of the story strongly suggests that it wasn’t appropriate. But in the moment, when we are presented with an opportunity to help someone, how are we to know if it’s really appropriate or not?
What makes it a good Buddhist parable is, it’s impossible to figure out with your head. You can’t answer it directly. You need to meditate and just live with it, and let life situations teach you. But to save you years of sitting meditation, living your life with this parable clunking around the back of your mind waiting for the answer to come to you, I will tell you what I think the answer is.
To me it depends on your motivation for helping. If you are the lady who sees the ant or the guy in a wheelchair in her path, please double check first to make sure that you are not about to seize on an opportunity to do a good deed for the day. That will make you feel great, but does the recipient benefit? Is he maybe doing just fine as he is? In the case of the guy you could just ask if he needs help. If he says no then you go about your business. If he says no and you double down on your kindness, it starts to look an awful lot like there’s more in it for you than for him.
Again, it’s hard to know, and in the spur of the moment you just have to act. But here is a helpful hint for you. When you see a guy in a wheelchair and you feel the need to make some observation about him, let it be this: There is a guy. He is pretty much like all the other guys at this state fair. He happens to be in a wheelchair.
I know what you’re thinking. There are a lot worse things to gripe about than how people try to be nice to you all the time. But that’s not what I’m griping about. I’m not even griping that much about how people cloak their ego gratification with altruism.
Mainly it’s tiresome to be treated as an oddity just because I’m in a chair, just because I’m shorter than everybody else and they can literally look down on me. I think I have a sense of how so-called little people feel. I guess the upside is that when I see a little person, or somebody in a chair, or on a respirator, or walking with a limp or what have you, I no longer have that instinctive “oh that poor thing” thing that kicks in. I don’t really think anything at all, and have no urge to help them or talk to them unless they are writhing on the floor.
I’ll end with an exercise for you to try. You should rent or borrow a wheelchair for a couple of days or a week and roll around in it to see what it’s like. This would be very instructive, and also fun as you can go directly to the front of pretty much any line and no one will say boo.