There are few things as powerful as keynoting a conference highlighting the disability experience.
Don’t get me wrong; I love speaking in schools and prisons, to professionals and corporations.
I love connecting with humanity.
But it’s at conferences that focus on the unique needs of disabled citizens where I feel somehow in the center of the sacred. Everywhere I look, I am humbled by courage, and a little bit shamed by my own daily complaints, complaints about issues that pale in comparison to life in a wheelchair or in a group home.
Let’s face it. I have much to be thankful for.
And this epiphany leaves me most undone, because to a person, the individuals with disabilities with whom I speak feel deeply grateful as well.
How can this be? What is their secret to profound thankfulness?
I, above all people, should know it.
After all, I have been counted among the disabled. Tourette Syndrome has slipped me into their ranks. So why do I get grumpy at lukewarm coffee, and irritated at sideways glances, and irate when my grocery line moves at a snail’s pace?
I don’t have it figured out, but I have an idea. See, while the world moves at breakneck speed, clawing and striving and pushing, those to whom I spoke mainly traveled the back roads.
And they traveled those roads together.
We all have this choice.
Here is the first, and it is pursued by the able masses: A frenetic life on the interstate, a life of accomplishing. Cars rush by, but you don’t notice … there are things to do. Oh, you might fire out a text and “connect” on occasion, but deep friendships slow us down. We have a life to live. Tired?
Drink more coffee.
Your other choice doesn’t look nearly as appealing, at least not at first. The back roads are bumpy, devoid of the conveniences on the interstate. So pilgrims are thankful for every friendly face. But nobody honks from behind; your pace is your own, and what’s more, you usually travel with a friend. Your journey is relational. And even if relationships are personally hard to find, they become the focus of the entire trip. Tired?
I think the joys of the disability experience lie on the back roads, in the little things, and in the thousands of courageous decisions made each day.
I used to think great people were found on the highway. There I saw the impressive ones, fast and strong. Successful.
At least they looked that way.
But the conference I just keynoted reminded me that some folks have a different set of gifts, gifts that slow them down. Gifts that weaken the body. But the irony is, these people had time for me. They stopped. They listened. Like a walk on a country road, there was no hurry to arrive. My company was enough.
Sure, it’s a slower path, and I’d choose it every time.
Jonathan Friesen at Minnesota’s Disability Conference