Everybody believes he is a good person and that what he does in life is done, most of the time, with honor, purpose, and noble conviction; this belief is true of almost all people, the good and the bad, the saints and even the psychopaths, because evil people don’t know they’re evil, their motivations and the things they do, in their minds, have reason and relevance. I, however, know I am not a good person. So, am I a bad person? I hope not. I put a genuine effort into not being one. I want to believe I’m simply like most people: neither good nor bad, just somewhere in between, equally balanced.
Sometimes I congratulate myself when I have a genuinely “good” thought. For example when that 16-year-old girl that was sailing solo around the world (I still wonder what parent would allow his 16-year-old daughter to sail around the world, through Somalia pirate infested waters or, for that matter, anywhere near the African coast—by herself! It really seemed as if the parents craved the prestige more than the girl did) was lost at sea but found alive and safe the following day. Thank God, I thought. Thank God that poor girl was found unharmed. And then I immodestly thought about how good and unselfish my preceding thought had been. What a good thought, Quill, a distant and smarmy voice that I knew was my own echoed. A very good thought indeed. Perhaps you are an admirable person after all.
But, of course, I knew differently.
I have a friend, Sammy, who, at 16 years old, was hit by a drunk driver as he walked innocently down the street one night. At the time, drunk drivers were probably the furthest things from his mind. After he was struck, he lay in a coma for months. Eventually he came out of it, but at a severe cost. He is now blind, with virtually no recall beyond the first 16 years of his life. His condition occurs constantly. When conversing with him, he usually forgets a great deal of what was just said and has to be continually reminded of current circumstances to ensure that the conversation moves along as smoothly as possible. As the stream of time moves onward, it’s as if Sammy were a small stick caught in a whirlpool, spinning and spinning and never moving as time and life continues to rush by. In spite of this, Sammy is glad to be alive and still manages to maintain an optimistic view of his years still to come.
Since the accident, I’ve probably seen Sammy about a dozen times in my life and not at all in several years. I am essentially choosing to ignore Sammy. He used to live with his mother, but she probably isn’t even alive anymore. I don’t know where Sammy is now and even if I did I’d probably create reasons not to visit him. The few times Sammy and I did get together, I (selfishly) found it frustrating to habitually remind him of recently stated facts and redirect our conversation as it progressed, or, more accurately, did not progress. But the whole thing was mostly sad, and then I felt guilty for pitying Sammy.
While he was in his early twenties, Sammy held a job folding cardboard take-out boxes at a Pizza Hut. Since I haven’t stayed in touch with him, I don’t know if he still has this job or if he’s moved on. It couldn’t have been a very satisfying occupation, but it undoubtedly fulfilled a fundamental human desire in Sammy to feel needed and to actively participate in society. With Sammy’s limited cognitive capacities, box folding may have been as good as it was going to get as far as holding down a job was concerned—I hope not, but I’m being objective.
So the question remains, is bringing Sammy happiness by my visiting him more important than the discomfort I feel being in Sammy’s presence? It goes without saying that the former is more important. In recognizing this, I did visit Sammy when I really didn’t feel like it. Ultimately, however, I did just allow Sammy to drift out of my life.
I believe in many, maybe even in most cases, when a newly handicapped friend or relative is introduced into any one of our lives, our lives, basically, continue on at a relatively normal pace and progression. The handicapped person’s life, on the other hand, is dramatically changed forever. He is now, relatively speaking, dependent with new and different goals in life, and he must rely on others, to some extent or another, for assistance. Newly brain damaged people, the blind, paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees, and other handicapped individuals can, of course, find purpose and independence, but things are never the same, for them or for us.
I sometimes think about what it would be like if the proverbial shoe were on the other foot. What if I were the newly handicapped individual? How would I like to be the one that hoped my old companions in life would sometimes think of me? I would daydream that when they got together they would periodically mention my name and even consider visiting me just for old time’s sake. I would fall asleep each night praying that this would come true, and when it did—because my friends are fine people, I would be happy, ecstatic, really, but at the same time I would envy them for their normal lives as they, for this single day, showered me with attention and euphemistic sympathy. I would love them for being my friends, but silently I would resent them because I would know that after they had left my house, they would all go to their own homes to be with their own families, and I would also know that my lovely friends would then tell their wives how glad they were that they had never suffered injuries similar to mine, and if they had, they would rather be dead than face a pointless destiny like Quill’s. And then, alone again, I would be absolutely assured that their next visit would be very, very far in the future, and perhaps it would not occur at all, because, let’s be honest, I am now a real downer.
For me, however, it might be a little different. I love my family and friends, but for the entirety of my life I’ve been very comfortable with my own company, often times preferring it over socializing. So being alone is nothing new. Maybe the tragic accident that handicapped me won’t be so bad after all, maybe it’s even better that it happened to me than to someone else who wouldn’t be able to mange it as well. Not to say that if I were suddenly blind, brain damaged, or left without the use of my limbs that I would accept it with no reservations at all. I wouldn’t … and, who knows, hypothetically, if I were allowed to think too long about my unfortunate new situation in life, which, of course, I would be, the outcome would probably not be a favorable one. I tend to overanalyze things and then dwell on them to a neurotic level. And without the freedom to do what I want when I want, and then to be burdened with the crushing knowledge that not only am I forced to rely on others, but that I am now the subject of whispers behind closed doors, I‘d feel dreadfully sorry for myself, maybe even on a much more profound level than others. I might possibly allow the inevitable values and oversights that complicate the tapestry of our lives to entangle and irreversibly shackle me, ultimately dragging me down to the bottomless pit of utter self-sorrow and desperation.
Understanding the eventual outcome of my nonexistent social life, I might become prematurely bitter and shun my visitors, knowing that, as they put on cheerful faces to view my broken body and humbled spirit, they were only there to fulfill their own moral obligations that will gradually taper off and then one day vanish entirely. It will happen, I know it will, and, deep down, so do they, although at the infancy of this awkward ballet they are unable to fathom the final results, and maybe even years later when I am little more than a distant memory, the reality of our lives, theirs and mine, may only exist in the emotionally sterile and seldom visited vaults of their subconscious where guilt is unable to gain purchase on the smooth incline of detachment and apathy.
All of this, of course, is under the assumption that I would still have my intellect. If an accident left me mentally and emotionally reduced, perhaps severely, then, I suppose, everything that I previously proposed would be entirely academic. I would then be that stick in the whirlpool, spinning and spinning, waiting for life to begin, every day, just waiting, hopefully waiting, but as it passed me by I would be blissfully unaware that each uneventful waking day in my life would bring me closer to its end, the clouds moving overhead, the discolored autumn leaves brushing against me in the wet vortex, all of it the sum of my life.
I think my present relationship with Sammy, my general understanding of how life works, and my rigorous unwillingness to change it for the better indubitably clarifies to me and to society whether I am a good person or not.