What was the last thing you complained about? Tired of deciding what to cook for dinner? Bad drivers on the freeway? Long line at Wal-Mart? Or maybe the complaints are more substantial. Maybe you’re missing something major in your life, like a good career, a house, or kids. It seems like complaints are a kind of default setting for most of the human race; I’m certainly a frequent and enthusiastic complainer myself. But every so often something suddenly crashes my pity party and reminds me of the million things I take for granted every day of my very blessed life. This week, I took a group of students to volunteer at Zach’s Place and Joey’s Place, two centers run by an organization called Special Kids/Special Families. SK/SF works with children and adults with disabilities, providing both a respite for their caretakers and therapy for the participants.
What a healthy dose of perspective those two days were. At Zach’s Place, I saw a girl who was the same age as the students who were volunteering with me. When you aren’t used to working with individuals with disabilities, the contrast can be a shock to the system. The girls in my group were struggling with which colleges to apply to. This girl was struggling to make the characters in her Sesame Street toy pop up because she lacked the necessary motor skills to turn knobs. My girls were excitedly discussing dress shopping for prom. This girl could neither shop for herself nor dress herself. My girls were frustrated with calculus homework. This girl was frustrated because she couldn’t get her crackers to her mouth without assistance. The differences were staggering and sobering. I so badly wanted to help her, but I knew that everything that could be done for her was already being done. All I could do was work really, really hard all day to disinfect toys, rake leaves, and sweep sidewalks in an effort to help the organization that was helping her.
My own turn for “compare and contrast” came the next day at Joey’s Place. I met people in their twenties and thirties, with disabilities ranging from autism to fragile x to Down’s syndrome to cerebral palsy. People in this age range are typically establishing careers and raising families. These people were working on tying shoes and were coloring pictures of kittens. But all of the sadness I felt over their situation came later, in retrospect. When I was with them, it was impossible to be sad, because they were overflowing with irrepressible delight. One man ran up to our group with the DVD cover of the musical Grease. He pointed to a picture on the back of John Travolta on a motorcycle and then pointed to himself. “Is that you?” asked one of the girls in our group, pointing to the picture. He nodded happily and went “vroom-vroom,” turning the throttle on an imaginary motorcycle. Another man introduced himself and could barely make it through the exchange of pleasantries before he excitedly showed us his JCPenney catalog full of men’s dress shirts. “I wear men’s clothing!” he told us proudly. We painted a room for Joey’s Place, and one man walked by while we were painting and told us that we were making the room stink. “But it’s going to be so pretty when it’s done,” one of the girls told him. He got the most excited look on his face and started jumping and clapping and cheering. “YAAAAAAAY!” he yelled through the hallway. The joy these people had was infectious. They had so much more to complain about than I had, but they were just happy to be alive and to meet new people, ecstatic about the simplest of life’s pleasures. They wore no facades; they were utterly without hidden agenda or hypocrisy. They were themselves, and they would have treated me the same had I been the President or a homeless person. I walked away thinking what a great deal I had to learn from them.
I’ve been temporarily cured of complaining. Every time a complaint crosses my mind, it’s overcome by a feeling of gratitude. When I couldn’t find my car keys, I thought to myself, “I’m independent. No one has to take me anywhere; I can drive myself where I choose.” When the grocery store was out of an ingredient I needed, I thought, “I can decide what I want to eat, cook for myself, and feed myself.” At least for right now, I can’t dwell on something negative in my life without being overwhelmed by all the positive things surrounding it. This cure will undoubtedly subside with time. But I plan to return to Zach’s Place and Joey’s Place, because I can help teach them life’s basics, and now I know that they can do the same for me.