There are times, mostly at night, when I find it necessary to use a white cane to navigate my way. I was trained in high school to use such a tool by gifted folks known as orientation and mobility specialists. Their job was to teach me how to be as independent as possible, though ironically this usually entails relying on some kind of device or method. While they taught me much about using my own capacity in tandem with handy gadgets to make daily life activities more manageable, I think their fundamental specialty was teaching me how to have confidence not simply in specific tools and techniques but in myself. I could never feel fully comfortable using any type of aid unless I was first comfortable in my own skin, my own skill. There are more times than I’d like to admit when I find it humbling (even humiliating) to have to depend on another’s capacity to boost my own capabilities. The root of my distress comes down to simply feeling incapable. This is the underlying definition of being ‘disabled’ in an autonomous sense. I am ‘unable’ to do something as I once did, as others do or as I wish I could do. There seems to be an intrinsic partnership between ‘help’ and ‘humility’. One cannot exist without the other; otherwise, life becomes very lonely as well as inert. None of us can exist independently of something or someone. ‘Interdependence’ allows us to truly live life to its fullest. These are basic laws of physics, right? Why, then, do I pretend to exist as though I don’t need to rely on anything or anyone to feel fully human? Such a false pretense disengages me from knowing what life is really about, who I am as a whole person and, most significantly, who God is first and foremost. These three realities engage with one another to form a limitless ability to live.
When I use my white cane, I sway it back and forth like a metronome, skimming the ground’s surface as I go. I sway it slightly wider than my body’s width, tapping each outer edge, keeping a rhythmic beat with each step. Left, right, left, right – tap, tap, tap, tap. Time ticks and my cane clicks in sync, helping me make my way. Despite how smooth or unobstructed the path is before me, I can still get tripped up if I forget to synchronize my steps with the sway of my walking stick. At times, I have to intentionally focus on the task, while other times it seems to occur as second nature. Yet, my primary nature is to want to walk out the door with nothing but my own two feet to trek along. Over the years, this reckless abandonment of leaving behind such a useful support shifts to regret when I later realize how handy it would have been. Initially, there is a uncomfortable humility in being so overtly seen by others as a person with limitations that requires something like a white cane or magnifying glass to do something as seemingly simple as crossing a street or reading a price tag. But even if I stubbornly dismiss reliance on any inanimate aid, inevitably I must ask for help from someone, friend or foe, to successfully complete a desired task – humility at its finest hour. Though I confess, walking into poles, people and door frames, tripping over curbs and cracks in sidewalks are even more humbling, especially when it could have been avoided with the proper tools. Now adays, I frequently keep my cane folded in my bag with me, just in case. I don’t need to use it all the time, though I do find myself using it more often than in years past. It may be because my vision has decreased a bit since childhood; yet, perhaps it is because I am increasingly redefining humility as a true virtue rather than a vice to be overcome. The more I practice this virtue, it seems the more readily and with ease I admit my needs and accept help in some useful form. It is ironic how the more reliance I confess I need, the more freedom I experience and the more efficiently I live.
I can’t always anticipate the terrain I’ll trek or the return time of my excursions. I’ve realized how I’ve developed a confident humility to utilize all known supports to feel capable. When I use my cane, particularly at night, I find myself walking with more ease and welcoming the information my cane provides for me to overcome obstacles along my path. My white cane is also a signal for others that I am visually impaired – this is a good thing. It can imperatively transform into a white flag, communicating the message that I surrender to the notion that I want to be noticed. In the event I miss a traffic signal or enter a store, there is a socially acceptable identity that I may need extra help. I’m not simply perceived as oblivious or idiosyncratic but that I actually have a legit reason for acting the way I do. I can’t be shy about being seen in certain contexts. I want to be seen. Holding my cane signifies that my limitation to see may require others to adjust their own observation skills. Seeing and being seen is an interdependent occurrence. The same is true for any sensation – touch equates being touched, hearing elicits sounds exchanged etc. There is mystery and risk involved in considering these connections, which is best described as perception. I don’t always know how someone will perceive me or even help me, regardless of whether or not I use a white cane, wheelchair or fog horn. In basic relational attachment theory terms, the experience of being misperceived or overlooked can best be described as feeling rejected. This can directly influence whether or not we fully attempt connection again, especially if we cannot clearly and accurately qualify how great the risk. If we are unsure how successful or safe our efforts to be supported will turn out, we may not bother trying at all; or we may choose the connection with the least resistance, which may turn out to be the least healthy option and further impair our sensibility.
It is easy to go through life like a zombie, responding merely to primitive perceptions of one’s surroundings, aimlessly wandering around according to brain stem impulses. But I’m always intrigued at how I perceive the world when I am consciously and confidently humble enough to rely on something or someone. There is an expanded awareness that activates of how life is meant to be lived. Initially, I must contend with the human condition of interpreting what I come in contact with. I must evaluate how reliable a person or piece of equipment may or may not be to assist me. My calculations are not always accurate. For starters, my white cane does not always permit me to quantify the depth of puddles. This has resulted in the unpleasantry of trekking the rest of my journey with wet and often cold feet. My cane or even my own feet also cannot detect low lying tree branches. It’s a miracle I still have eyeballs when I think about near misses or head on collisions I’ve had with tree limbs. People prove to react curiously at times too. Once in a while, someone over-exerts themselves to help me by grabbing my arm and leading me in the opposite direction of where I intended to go. Some others just stare blankly at me as if I had asked them to build me a rocket, when all I asked was what train stop we pulled up to. These anecdotal situations reveal a deeper disconnect for me though – I’m left to depend on myself more than others. Thus, I find myself meticulously trying to plan things to avoid mishaps and strange encounters. I methodically review my purse contents before leaving the house to ensure I have all necessary items to master my mission. I strategize routes and places, especially if I am not familiar with a certain destination. I memorize train times, bus routes, addresses and plot coordinates according to landmarks and street corners. However, despite doing all this, I have experienced intense moments of panic when I become disoriented to a location or get lost in route somewhere. Whatever confidence I started out with dissipates quickly and I feel like a bewildered little girl all over again. All sensational information becomes dissident noise until I steady myself, take a deep breath and find something familiar to re-orient my way. This also involves taking time to study where I’ve come from, where I think I am and where I’m hoping to get to. In these moments, panic and impatience only compromises my attempts and confuses me more. I have to calm my breathing, my thoughts and any feeling of defeat and fear with mindful repose. If not, the tears emerge and all I want to do is go home. During more than one of these occasions, I’ve wished I was Dorothy and could just click my heels three times to be magically whisked back to the inside of my house. These adventures, however, play out more like Alice in Wonderland, requiring me to confront rather than escape the discomfort of feeling lost to find my way home. Alas, such effort helps me resume grounded reality and I realize getting anywhere necessitates an intentional and internal sense of calm to occur, so I can clearly consider my options. Sometimes I think I am too ambitious, which is its own stumbling block; but then I realize that it is that same ambition that reminds me to access a Sacred Compass to help me resume calm and courage to get my bearings and press on with purpose.
Any type of orientation (even being disoriented or re-orienting oneself) connotes that a relationship exists or has been challenged to exist. Our whole life is about relating to something or someone. From the womb to the grave, we are letting go as well as receiving connection from another to survive. There are transfers of connections from one resource to another but always connection nonetheless – some connections are healthier than others. My sensitivity to this process and how it works has increased throughout my life. So often I’m required to assess and reassess my surroundings in order to make the simplest decisions more manageable. Despite my own best efforts, I feel like asking permission or clarification assistance has become my modus operandi to get through any given day.
Sometimes I feel so child-like relying on another’s queue just to cross the street or press debit on the swipe machine at the store. I’ve wandered around retail shops and supermarkets browsing and hoping to purchase a new outfit or groceries for the week, only to walk out the door empty handed. I follow up later with a call to a friend or family member to go with me to ensure I find what I’m looking for. I do frequently ask the sales person or customer service desk but I hesitate at times to pester them with questions I can more easily ask someone who knows me. Less explaining may be needed with a familiar companion and less guessing at what works best. Maybe this preference is simply about avoiding the ongoing vulnerability of constantly self-disclosing the parts of me that feel incapable; though maybe it is also about celebrating the ongoing support of specific people who give me grace to be me without pretending that I’m perfectly capable. There is comfort in being able to rely on something/someone consistently. Even though I must wait till such friend or family member can synchronize calendars with me, it is worth the wait. It is also worth noting how consistency of frequenting the same stores and settings creates connections of familiarity and accepted routines. Self-disclosure doesn’t seem as scary or inconvenient because there is already an anticipation of what may be needed. The debut of online shopping has remedied some of these social transactions but not completely. I still often rely on better eyes than mine to navigate websites. What may take the average sighted person ten minutes to order or register for some item can take me three times that, resulting in eye fatigue and soul frustration. Assessing the cost to benefit ratio of attempting something on my own proves it is worth asking and even waiting for help. Oh but there is definitely a significant moment of pride I feel when I can perform a task like finding the toilet bowl cleaner I like at a store on my own.
These seemingly little triumphs boost my confidence but they are not without the inevitable humility factor of buying it – I ask for help with the swipe machine and then have to wait for the bus or train to escort me and my purchase back home. And don’t even get me started about eating at buffets, using ATMs and getting around construction sites that block the sidewalk. Just when I think I can do something all by myself, I face the facts that I still need help. And that’s okay. That’s the true essence of optimistic living – having humility to know we need help and to know that help comes when we need it.
Photo: The Eye of God, celestial nebula