Distance Toward Compassion

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Standing ovation to the lady on the wheelchair

On Saturday 10/20/2012, the day 2 of the One Young World Summit 2012 in Pittsburgh, a global youth summit which I participate in as one of the Japanese delegates, I experienced one unforgettable time. There were about 1,200 delegates from more than 180 countries , and we had four day long events with various themes of global issues and speeches about them by guest speakers and delegate speakers(not every delegates). All of the speakers made great presentations about each of their ambitious and passionate actions to tackle with the global issues. One of the topic on the seconde day was health, especially focused on access to equal opportunities for those who with disabilities, and I heard the speech of one female delegate who has a strong passion about international treatment of people with disabilities. She has achieved great academic works at grad school and exercised leadership in recent activities that aimed to empower youth adults with disabilities, and she also has a physical disabilities and uses a wheelchair. She, same as other delegates in each session, made a speech about her opinions and actions at her turn. After her speech, immediately almost all of the delegates audience made a loud standing ovation. It felt far louder ovation than that toward other speakers. After each session, there was a time for questions to speakers or comments on the issue from audience delegates. Each time, many delegates rushed to the four microphones at the floor and made line to speak up.

Af this health session, I tentatively walked to one of the microphones and lined. Then I asked to the floor…

“Why did you made such a quick and loud standing ovation, while you didn’t do that yesterday? Was it just because her speech was wonderful… or, was it because she has a disability?”

Silence filled with the floor (while when others made questions and comments there were warm applauses), and I felt so nervous with stomachache, and ended my note with the rest of stammering words (though, she the speaker received my comment and gave her reply, and also there were some delegates who talked to me after the session and they seemed to understand what I meant).

I didn’t want to blame anyone. I didn’t want to be cynical. I just wanted to… no, I didn’t even ‘want’ anything by my behavior. It’s just… I couldn’t stop my uncomfortable and sick feeling spilling over. I never wanted to disturb the session, nor behave selfishly. But, I was not so tolerant and wise to come into line with a mood of ‘unhealthy’ optimism and togetherness at the summit.

How do we see ‘disability’?

What I meant by the question was, just to ask whether there was a kind of ‘advantage’ or ‘bonus’ on their ovation to her, the person with a ‘disadvantage’. Wasn’t there an excess kindness or rightness to approve her speech? In other words, was there a kind of ‘tacit’ direction or pressure in our minds towards admiring such a moving story by the person with disability? Again, I never wanted to blame her, the speaker and any other delegates. Her activity and work was of course great. But still, I didn’t feel, to be honest, the degree of interest or quality of her speech content itself was excessively and overwhelmingly superior to other delegates’ speech. Other delegates’ speeches were, to a varying degree, interesting too but they received standing ovations by obviously less number of the people. I feel, here is a difficult and complex question about how we see and think the matter of health, disease, disability and more profoundly, happiness of life.

Her activity itself was wonderful. And I know, the great output of her activity itself must not be only ‘because of’ her disability but because she made efforts so hard and so passionately to achieve her goals. But how about evaluation or impression from us on her and her activity? When we meet such a wonderful activities by people with disabilities, we tend to easily admire their work by saying like, “They achieved so great works ‘regardless’ of their disability!” Regardless? What does the word mean? Is it really true? In other times, we may mention to the themes of ‘equality’ and ‘universality’ saying in a optimistic way like, “Every people has, (like her) a great potential to get over their handicaps! We believe we can make the world where every people can achieve their own dreams and live happily!” (This sounds an over description, but the mood of the summit was actually similar to that.) Get over? Do we really believe, every people can get over their obstacles and achieve their dream, ‘regardless of’ any handicap? Even if we made a world with perfect equal chance, then can we make a truly “fair” evaluation of their works based only on the quality of achieved outcomes and happiness of each one life? I dare say, it is impossible. And I think, it is the very impossibility of such a world with equality that makes us sometimes ‘overvalue’ the wonderful success stories of those who has some handicaps or disabilities, because such stories ‘relieve’ our feelings of anxiety or guilty about the overwhelming reality of the world with never-eliminated inequalities. How should we deal with this paradox? To tackle this question, I have to think about both social and personal aspects of the matter of ‘disability’.

Person-based perspectives on capacity and output

Firstly, I do think there are some ‘fair’ regions about personal values, although you may felt above I have a cynical view about this position. Professional regions are where only an output of work matters. Among professional, especially high levels of, business persons, athletes, or artists, there is no room to be excused about their quality of output. The values of their works can be purely based on the quality. It doesn’t matter whether they have any handicap, disadvantage or disability. I do feel, in such a region, this is a fair manner. Also, such a person-based viewpoint is not limited only within the professional regions, but can be applied to more common levels to some degree. Let me say, not every person has a great capacity and respectable personality. It is natural that there are both respectable and disrespectable persons among people with some disabilities and in the same way there are both types of persons among people who are ‘healthy.’ Someone may, like she the speaker, achieve great works even though they have serious disabilities, while others may become servile about their disabilities and give up hopes about their lives. Similarly, there may be a person who wallows lazily in his or her advantaged physical, mental and socio-economic status and never make an effort to live sincerely, while there may be a person who do his or her best to live the decent life without being bloated with advantaged conditions. From this point of view, I can say personal value can be evaluated ‘nothing to do with’ disabilities. In fact, I do respect those who do make best efforts to live their decent lives regardless of any kind of handicap, and do not respect people who are too slavish and lazy of their condition even if they had heavy disadvantages. Yes, I do think this is a ‘fair’ manner to see individuals in one aspect. However, is it perfectly ‘fair’ to value every person based on his or her own personality and capacity? Should we, or can we totally ascribe their values or qualities of outputs to his or her own responsibility? I don’t think so. There must be non-negligible influences on individuals from outside factors. On this point, health and disability become the matters discussed as policy agendas.

Health and disability as ‘public’ issues

People are born in society, and there are various political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and genetic determinants that cause obstacles or barriers against their healthy lives. Not only physical and mental ones, every people have various kinds of problems and conflicts. Thus, at the startpoint, there exists inequality of chance and choice, and if someone is born in an extremely worst conditions it would be almost impossible to live decent life and make a great outputs of his or her works only by a ‘personal effort’. Therefore, we should try to eliminate extreme poverty and disparity as much as possible through collective and social actions. Without doubt, we ‘can’ set some policy agendas and goals about health and disability in public level in order to achieve a total optimization, and we should make laws and systems so that as many as people can enjoy comfortable lives and pursue their own happiness regardless of disabilities. But to what extent? How many people with problems in their health should be supported? Can we find the best line to define appropriately conditions of people who can be supported and contents of social policies that aim to care such people? If possible, even so it must be really difficult challenge, there must remain some loophole of any brilliant policy, and there must be persons who do feel they are not supported or cared enough by the policy. Thus, ultimately and unfortunately, it’s a matter of chance, based on the time and place they are born and live, whether they are regarded as the strong or the weak, as the healthy or the disabled, as those who should be supported socially and collectively or not. Again, I still can say, she the speaker is a respectable person who achieved great works. Similarly we can admire those who acheived great works whatever handicaps or problems they had. But… their achievements can also said to be ultimately results by chance, even though there may be rooms of their personal efforts, and results of positive and negative influences of policy, economy, environment and social support they could enjoy. Any individual never exist socially isolated. We human beings are born embedded with society. Any result or output of our life at present is connected to the past various, both personal and socio-environmental factors. So… if it is true and if our lives, our advantages and disadvantages (not limited to ‘disabilities’), and our happiness and tragedy are ultimately matters of chance, how should we live and what should we do?

I happen to see I’ve came to far away from the beginning, the short event at the summit. But, I cannot stop thinking this philosophical question about health, disease, disability and happiness, because this is strongly related to the mood and behavior of audience and my feeling toward them at the summit. Also it is related the important themes on our society such as equality, diversity, justice, dignity etc. Let me ask you, if the difference of each person’s health, disability and capacity is the matter of chance, how can we face with her, who are an unique person same as each of us, and at the same time can be regarded as a symbol of social matter of disability? My present answer…my only option is to live my own life, which is different from her.

Acceptance of unavoidable ways

Every individual can only live their own life one time with every accidental circumstance. Thus every people are different, and no one can share with others perfectly their own feelings, delights and pains, hopes and dispairs, unique incidents and stories. Sometimes we tend to say so optimistically, especially in such a social event like the summit, the words of ‘compassion,’ ‘connection’ and ‘unity.’ But we should admit there is a never-eliminated distance between each different individual. I never knew about her the speaker’s past life, her pain, her struggles and her hope (it was a part of the reason why I couldn’t make a standing ovation with other audience easily, and it was same after other delegates’ speech). Also, she and other delegates at the summit never knew about my past life, my pain, my struggles and my hope. My question at the summit might have sounded inappropriate one from ‘healthy’ person to ‘disabled’ person, but the time when I questioned standing solely in a silent, I felt myself almost ‘disabled’ person who had a poor social adjustment to the majority mood of the summit, and had a disability of stammering. I might be a strange outliner. But it was the very moment I could feel face with her and other audience at the ‘equal’ height, standing by myself based on my honest feeling that I couldn’t share and connect myself well with her and with other audiences. I do believe that if there can be possibility of realizing any kind of ‘equality’, ‘compassion’ or ‘unity’ with others, the only starting point towards such ideal goals is, to accept my honest feeling about ‘impossibility’ of inequality, compassion or unity with others and deliver sincerely such feelings towards them.

It might be strange the question I threw at the floor. But for me at the time, it was another way of ‘ovation’ to her.

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