The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel

Snowy-MorningI am an elder, and as such I am given the task of teaching and supporting the young. On the Medicine Wheel of this lifetime I am in the Northwest, the place of honoring the challenges of my life, understanding them as best as I am able, and sharing what I have learned with others. Perhaps you will share your thoughts about the thoughts I offer below; I would greatly value that.

We’ve been watching the Olympics and have noticed, especially from NBC’s coverage, that the commentators seem to believe winning and perfection are all important. This is a sad thing. One does not have to watch much before one becomes aware the announcers are ceaselessly pointing out errors and failures. Rather than empathy for the competitors, one is barraged with demands for perfection and minute details about failure to achieve such.  There is very little celebration of the athletes who fail to meet the announcers’ or judges’ criteria.

This hits home on two fronts. The first is cultural. I was raised to appreciate the efforts of all. Winning is fun, but should not shame others. Nor should anyone be left behind after the games are over. Further, perfection was considered suspect. One was advised to build imperfection into one’s art and welcome it in one’s life. After all, we are not the Creator although we are aspects of His/Her creation. Only the Creator can be perfect, and it is likely even S/He makes mistakes; as we are reflective of the Creator this suggests that even mistakes can be good and holy. The unbridled pursuit of perfection n endangers the individual and the culture, the community and the ecosystem.

The second part is I am a survivor of Bulbar Polio. My phsysiatrist says I am “a walking quad”; rather than disparaging, this is a simple statement of truth. I have severe neurological injuries; Polio destroyed motor neurons all over my body. My arms and hands have considerably diminished capacity; my legs and feet lack strength and mobility; breathing can be a challenge. I am not perfect by the dominant culture’s standards.

Add to this my Native American heritage and the soup becomes thick indeed. I once heard a man, who understandably thought he was with other Europeans, say something like,  “There is nothing more pathetic than a disabled Indian.”  What are we to do with that? Indeed, what are we to do with NBC’s virtual silence on the topic of the Para-Olympics?

Herein lies the difficulty. One one hand I was encouraged to accept  and honor imperfections. On the other, as a Polio survivor I was taught to do my level best to pass as normal, to overcome limitations, and to forget my illness and its  aftermath. Additionally, as a child in a Native family that was actively passing, I was taught to be invisible, a lesson that surely applied to Polio as well.

It is a profound challenge to resist the limiting messages of our families and the dehumanizing ones of the dominant culture. I have done my best, yet I have also spent much of my life seeking to achieve others’ views of perfection, even though not even normalcy was not an option.This has been painful.

I don’t know whether you have ever thought about the Wounded Healer.  In Traditional cultures ill youngsters are often expected, should they recover, to become healers. I use the term “recovery” loosely. Youngsters who face and survive catastrophic illness may not have the same physical capacities as their normative friends. Yet their illness may also give them abilities and insights not readily available to others. When the child is ill the healers do their best to aid. They also seek to discern the nature of the illness; often such illness are understood to be calls from the spirits, initiations into the realm of healers. When there is a spirit call, training in the healing arts accompanies recovery. The illness frequently leaves a footprint in the life and work of the survivor; he or she becomes a wounded healer, knowledgeable about many of the territories and challenges that accompany illness.

This is a different model than the academic learning focus of the West. Of course, the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may intersect, even overlap at times. Both address the needs of the body. Some Western trained healers have adopted the Indigenous understanding that the soul and psyche must also be attended to.  (Milton Erickson, although not to my knowledge Indian, comes to mind as someone who walked both roads well.)

I have come to this point on the Medicine Wheel by living my life from within this severely injured body. This is a sharp contrast to the physically perfection of elite Olympic athletes, or the health and wealth gurus we see on PBS and on innumerable infomercials. The television sages convey the message to us that illness, poverty, loneliness, and all other forms of suffering are moral failures. They do not speak this directly, rather they hold up their carefully managed perfection as a mirror to our human frailties. They offer advice, even salvation; for a fee we can be just like them. But I, and many others, cannot.  The very lifestyles they espouse harm us, and endanger our precious planetary ecosystem and all that lives therein. Where, I wonder is their wisdom and compassion?

We approach the Spring, the East in the Abenaki view of the Medicine Wheel, the place of rebirth and awakening. I am curious how my changing understanding of this beloved, traumatized body will blossom in the coming year.  I wonder whether our culture can set aside the deeply held values of independence, competition, and perfectionism that shaped the  our country (the very ones espoused by those television commentators). Can we own our imperfections, and acknowledge the harm we have inflicted on ourselves and so many others, inside and outside our country? Can we embrace those who suffer illness, poverty, displacement, abuse, or isolation?

As we follow the journey of the sun into the East, we are invited to begin again, to open our eyes and practice compassion and understanding. May we  find the courage to do so.

15 thoughts on “The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel

  1. Dear Michael,
    There are so many aspects to this very rich post, I hardly know which to respond to. I have always felt uncomfortable with the Olympics. I admire the determination of the athletes, and I like the idea of cooperation between nations. But I don’t usually watch the Olympics. It is too stressful to see children of 15 and 16 years, who had no childhood because their whole lives have been spent working toward a gold medal. One mistake on the ice or the parallel bars, and a twenty year old becomes a washed up failure. It creates an atmosphere in which athletes are so driven to succeed they will resort to illegal drugs or, as an extreme example, the brutal attack arranged by figure skater Tonya Harding upon her opponent, Nancy Kerrigan.

    I guess I’m much more of a Special Olympics kind of person, where the goal is not on competition, but to celebrate the effort of the participants and give them a chance to shine, each in his own way.

    It seems wrong that we have turned athletes and anorexic movie stars into our cultural and national heroes, and pay them obscene amounts of money. Their goals are not just to play the best they can, but to sell running shoes, cereal, make-up, and gossip magazines. I would rather see that enthusiasm and admiration given to scientists who are working towards medical breakthroughs, activists who are trying to make the world a better place for everyone, philanthropists who are supporting worthy causes, writers and poets who inspire us with their insight and wisdom, educators who are helping to prepare the next generation to take on the mess we are leaving behind.

    I am so sorry for the hardships you experience, both because of your health and your ethnicity. I am glad you are speaking out and raising awareness on all these issues.

    Best wishes,

    1. Dear Naomi,

      Thank you. I am, of course, not alone in experiencing hardships. Suffering is the underbelly of our culture, that which is not seen. Perhaps we give athletes obscene amounts of money to entertain us, to divert our attention to the fact we are all together on this great blue-green, immensely alive and conscious boat. We need to be reminded that suffering is part of the journey. Perhaps then we will be more open and kind to one another. Perhaps it is the way of suffering that yields compassion and wisdom. We will find out.

  2. Well said. The dominant culture molds and massages our conceptual framework for the Empire’s goals and objectives. Just knowing that can be dangerous for your health, physical and mental. Basically all we can do is “speak our truth” and hope that others of like mind understand us and will lend their voices to re-establish harmonious balance with Mother Nature. Ignorance masquerading as truth has always been a problem on the planet. It has gotten us into a very tight spot of late, one I don’t like to see, let alone give to our children for the next seven generations. Continue to share your truth Michael. I usually agree with what you have to say. The elders have to speak up and perhaps the people will listen. Let’s hope so.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I like to believe that Mother Nature will do fine in the end, although we may not. I’d much rather we wake up and come into balance. As you know well, waking up is a continual and all too human process that requires humor, courage, and some luck. Maybe all we elders can do is to share stories and experiences, as you do so well.

  3. I, too, am an imperfect polio survivor. I watch these Olympic athletes beating their young bodies into perfection with no thought to the price they’ll pay down the road. Hopefully, robotic transplants will be there when they need them. Wish they were here now when I need them. Keep smiling. Very inspirational post, BTW!

  4. Thank you Michael, for sharing your wisdom and story, and for beginning the conversation. Having grown up in American culture, I began questioning the nature of perfection early on. As a child I never fully bought into the competitive side of success, as I always held compassion for those who were not “winners”. As a young man, I remember a pivotal moment in consciousness that led me to a deeper understanding of what “perfection” is (or at least how I perceived it). I often reflect on this realization and would share it now 🙂

    One day, I became aware that I was reaching for perfection in all things (life, love, work, art..), and that it was causing me to suffer. This was challenging, because I had slowly begun to realize that true perfection (or at least the concept of perfection I had been taught) was unattainable. In other words, I realized that I had been attempting the impossible! As I thought further on what true perfection entailed, I realized that the human idea of perfection was indeed different from any “natural” state of perfection. For some reason, at that time, I associated what I considered misguided human desire for perfection with the concept of symmetry. Then I thought of a tree. A tree, I understood as perfect. It was part of Creation and therefore, even if bent or broken, was in it’s “natural” (or perfect) state. I thought of a tall pine tree in all of its beauty and realized symmetry did not apply. Then I thought of a human face and how we are, by nature, not symmetrical. With these realizations I began to relax my ideas of what true perfection is. Indeed, this insight no doubt fed my love of building furniture with reclaimed lumber, versus the clean, clear, and “perfect” fine furniture so often valued. Ultimately, the following paradox of semantics occurs: It is the imperfections in life that hold true perfection.

    Once again, I am grateful for your sharing Michael and for your bringing this message to our minds and hearts. I pray for the awakening of humanity to the deeper understanding of perfection and that together, we learn to honor each aspect of Creation as divine, just as it is!

    Big Love, Bright Light!

    1. Thank you Raphael. I am not sure that we are inherently seekers of perfection. Rather, I imagine that seeking perfection is just one of many possible paths one might walk. Certainly perfectionism is more dominant in some vultures than others. It is always a difficult and painful path. I am aware that I too struggle to accept things as they are, with their many deviances from my perception of how they should be.

  5. Michael: I am so grateful for a history of knowing you and your many gifts. As we grow older and confront our many illnesses and weaknesses, it is so nice to know that the things that we become attached have ceased to define us. We are much larger than the hand-me-down identities that we became attached to in earlier times and places in our lives. It is so nice to be a part of your sharing your wisdom and the larger identity that you have become! Welcome.

  6. I love the way you’ve written this post, and can only agree with all your words….so full of lived wisdom. My own wounds were more emotional than physical, being given up by my birth mother and fostered and adopted, unable to find my roots and where I came from. It’s hard to describe this hole this loss to anyone who knows their roots, but wounded healer is how I came to find myself and my place in the world.
    I’m also left thinking about my son and his wounds, physical and emotional following a near tragic car crash….he is still struggling to find meaning and make sense of it all….but with time I hope he will 🙂

    1. Green, Thank you for sharing your story. I have been thinking about your words. I like to believe the roots are there, even if we can’t feel them, or know them. There is wisdom in the genes and the ancestors are somehow present. Yet the experience of being without roots is so compelling and painful. Adoption, even to the most caring of parents, is a displacement that may be difficult for others to understand. Following such losses can find oneself with an abiding sense of exile. To find healing is a blessing.

      It is the human condition to want to make sense, to find meaning. I hope your son soon finds peace with his accident. Perhaps he can borrow from your experience with the journey.

      1. I hope so Michael, thanks for your thoughtful reply. The ancestors are certainly the force which has helped me to root myself firmly….after some free floating 🙂

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