January 5, 2012
Thursday, 2:30 p.m.
Letter #207: Adam and the Electric Chair
Statistics bear out that the most generous people are not necessarily the wealthy, but those who identify most with the “cause” they are giving to. Those who lose a child due to gang violence, for example, will often give of their time and resources to prevent future such tragedies. Cancer survivors, such as Lance Armstrong, make it their life mission to raise awareness and funds for research to fight the disease. This natural response is empathy—a compassion stemming from a shared experience. When we go through a trial, it becomes possible for us to say, “I understand what you’re going through” to others who face similar trials in the future. We feel what they feel. We’ve been there.
I’ve never been disabled—not even a broken bone—yet I have a special place in my heart for those people who daily live with the hardship of a disability. My good friend, Adam, has paraplegia, confining him to a wheelchair; his only method of communication is an “alphabet board,” a simple piece of paper with letters he points to. (I called it his “Find-a-Word” board, since it was always challenging to decipher what he was trying to say.) I often picked him up in my vehicle, lifting his 6’4″ frame into the front passenger seat and single-handedly stowing his massive powered wheelchair into the back of my van or truck. We went lots of places together—restaurants, church meetings, even the beach numerous times.
One evening, he wanted to go to a healing service hosted by a large church in San Jose. When we arrived, I took his powerchair out of the back of my truck as usual. Driving it to the passenger door, I had a brilliant idea: I could simply stay in the chair and silently enter the church for the service. It was sure to get a laugh from Adam, who knows I’m crazy, and from the greeters at the door, who were used to seeing Adam in the wheelchair, not me. Adam gave me a thumbs-up sign as I quickly grabbed his Find-a-Word and jetted off. I dragged a wheelie across the parking lot and raced up the walkway. The friendly door people smiled and placed a church brochure on the wheelchair’s tray table. I just smiled and motored towards the sanctuary. I couldn’t believe no one had said anything. No one pointed out the imposter. No one even looked at me.
The sanctuary doors were held open for me by a name tag in a suit who welcomed me. I began to play Find-a-Word with him as he looked on with obvious fascination. My finger pointed: I [SPACE BAR] A·M [SPACE BAR] N·O·T [SPACE BAR] H·A·N·D·I·C·A·P·P·E·D [SPACE BAR]. “Would you like to sit up front?” he blank-stared me as the usher-robot inside him led me exactly there.
Well, well, Christopher. Great plan. Now what? I’m in the front row of a healing service, trapped in a powered wheelchair with my silent friend waiting outside, and I had his only voice on the paper in front of me. I hadn’t thought through this. I wasn’t about to fake-miracle the nice church people who hadn’t seemed to notice me, so I simply turned and motored out. I sat Adam in the chair and back we went. This time, I snagged the church’s manual wheelchair and zipped into the service beside Adam. Again, no one seemed to notice me.
Partway through the service, Adam motioned to me and I watched him spell, “It is different for you. You get to leave the chair, but I have to stay.” In my attempt to enter—immerse—myself into his world, an electric chair that was a lifetime imprisonment of sorts, I’d injured my friend. I’d felt the abandonment; the isolation of our “it’s rude to stare, so I won’t even look your direction” society, but I can never say, “I understand what you’re going through,” because I haven’t lived it, day after day.
Friends of mine, repentant, God-fearing men who are doing a life sentence in prison are precious to me. I’ve walked a ways in their shoes, but I don’t truly understand. My empathy only reaches so far with them, but my compassion in Christ is limitless. God has given me a heart for prisoners I never had till I sat in their chair. This week, I wrote an appeal extension for a man wrongfully accused, a business plan for another, wrote four agencies to help another man get custody of his children from a drug-addict wife, and on and on. I began to care. Now if only they’ll listen as I play “Find-the-Word.” B·I·B·L·E [SPACE BAR].