I was in Bahrain one day in August of the past year (2015). I witnessed something that shook me deeply.
The mall I went to has a parking building (building B in the diagram) and an intermediate building (building C in the diagram) connecting the mall (building A in the diagram) with the parking building. This mediating building has escalators between different parking lot levels. Naturally, the intermediate building has sliding doors on the parking side and on the mall’s side.
Here I am entering the mall and there was a family coming out the mall. There was a lady who looks 40ish, a couple of kids, and the paternal looks well into his 40s or 50s holding another man’s hand who also looks to be 40~50 years old and is a bit short and hunchbacked.
The short hunchbacked man was dragging his feet with a genuine look of fear on his face and says with kinda a child-y tone “I’m scared. I’m scared.” The paternal who’s holding this man’s hand kept telling him “it’s alright. You’re not scared. You’ll be alright.” He wasn’t imitating children. It looked and sounded genuine and natural.
I do not know what’s the condition he has, what caused it, how long he had it. or any other question that could popup. He seems to be exhibiting a developmental disability, given the tone he spoke in and the way he acts. It shook me how here’s an old man who’s in a mental state that’s detached from the normalcy of everyday objects. Things that are not very new to anyone who has been around for the past 20 years, yet for some reason he is not well with them. He really looked like toddlers who are afraid of escalators or elevators. I can only deduce that he has one condition or another that affected his mental development. Whether he’s born with it or not is irrelevant because, to me, it’s the fact that he’s not settled with something we take for granted, which is assessing the surroundings for rational fear of objects or the place being risky.
I’m not sure I can ever understand what he’s feeling or how it would feel to be in his shoes. This fact upsets me that I can’t understand or perceive what someone like him, a fellow human being, is experiencing. It makes me feel helpless that I can’t understand him (or people like him) so I would be short on the ability to help or even interact with them.
What is it like inside his head…
Upon reflecting on this a day or two later, I am reminded by a House MD episode (Season 3, episode 15, titled “Half Wit”).
The episode starts showing a man, named Patrick, trying to button his shirt but he can’t and his father rushes to help him. Patrick is a savant and piano play prodigy. He became that way due to a bus accident when he was a kid. Patrick is the patient of this episode. House eventually resolves that a hemispherectomy is the cure. House explains to the father that the procedure will cure his son. He’ll lose his ability to play the piano, but he’ll live “normally,” whatever normal means. Before signing the consent, the father turns to his son and asks him “Patrick, are you happy?” Patrick doesn’t understand the question, which impulses the father to consent. Patrick later wakes up after the surgery; he lost his speech, but he buttoned his shirt on his own.
Some of us have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking “how sad and poor that person is” when witnessing someone of one disability or another. I admit that I used to do so on occasion. However, I am now more aware of my thoughts and try to catch myself not to think that way. I feel like this reaction is us thinking of ourselves as collectively better than them. It is that House MD episode that got me thinking about it.
Now, was Patrick happy before the surgery? Is he happy (or happier) after the surgery? Is being able to button one’s own shirt is more valuable than being able to play the piano flawlessly? I, for one, wish I know how to play the piano but I don’t, and I’m sure there are many others like me. Would we be willing to make the trade? Personally, I do not know if the trade is worth it and I don’t know if it’s not.
An example from real life is more approachable and relatable than a fictional character. Consider Stephen Hawking. This man is a genius. He can solve differential equations in his head. Those who studied differential equations know how those solutions could take multiple pages to get to the answer. But he’s also bound to his wheelchair, can’t talk without the computer, can’t move his head, or any other part of his body because of a disease called Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as, ALS). Is Stephen Hawking a “poor fella” because he’s bound to his wheelchair while he can solve complex mathematical equations in his head? Now are we envious of him or are we saddened for him? Would anyone be willing to trade with him?
People like Patrick (from the House MD episode above) could actually be happy, something many of us quest after, yet we will look at them and think “how sad and poor.” After all this time of pondering the entire discussion, which has been on my mind for years, I get stuck in a mental loop when I involuntarily think “what a pity” of a random person I witness somewhere. It starts with the thought of pity, which I immediately catch myself thinking it. I tell myself “we’ve been over this entire thing before” and replay the entire argument back and forth in my head. The argument keeps me in check, and it serves as a distraction from deliberating the thought of pity. However, the conclusion is always the same. Maybe it’s all a compromise and each one of us have their share.