Who Would I Be?

‘Suppose you could take away the tics,’ he said. ‘What would be left? I consist of tics – there’d be nothing left.’

Witty Ticcy Ray

Who would I be without my disability?

Perhaps an odd question to ask. The answer should be ‘a better and happier person’.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. I found myself resonating with Witty Ticcy Ray – I might be nothing without it.

For most of my teens, I’ve had to deal with pain, walking problems, and more recently, the resultant emotional fallout. In the most developmental stages of my life, I’ve grown up with it and lived my life around it.

To some, it’s the same as growing up with a favourite sports team or book series. A lot of the conversations you have with friends and family are around this favourite thing. For me, my habits and motivations have been moulded around my disability.

It’s difficult enough to answer the question of who I am right now let alone who I would be without a life-changing event.

A simpler question to ask is: Would I be a better person?

At first, I thought the answer should be a resounding ‘YES!’ I’d be pain-free. I’d read more. I’d have more fun with friends. I’d live without needless discomfort. I’d still be able to play sports. I wouldn’t have had operations 2 operation in a year. I wouldn’t even have to grapple with this question.

Yet, there was some resistance to my answer. I don’t know if I would be a better person.

I tend to view my disability as a negative thing and wish it gone every day. I have never thanked fate for my problem. Still, my answer to the question was not confident.

My hesitation came from the good things that have happened as a result of my disability.

I probably wouldn’t have become interested in personal development as early as I did. One of my motivations for starting a blog was to see how I could improve life despite my problems. In fact, none of my readers knew I had a disability until I wrote Living with Chronic Pain.

It’s unlikely I’d be as concerned about the welfare of other disabled students. In turn, that’s probably affected how I treat people more generally.

Would I be interested in meditation and mindfulness? These are two things I am forever grateful I started.

My disability has shaped me in some good ways. Would I still have those good qualities without it?

If I say I wouldn’t be a better person, does that mean my disability is a good thing? How can I reconcile that with my efforts to get rid of it?

If my disability is a good thing, why name it a disability?[1] Surely everyone faces some discomfort and this is just my personal one.

If I can’t call it a disability, what has been the source of all my discomfort and frustration?

Currently, I’ve asked many questions and given few answers. When I started thinking about these questions, I thought about what I’d be admitting with my answers.

Despite my attempts to steer clear of this, perhaps my disability is integral to my identity rather than just an addition onto the core ‘me’.

Maybe I can’t complain about my discomfort if I cannot imagine a better future.

Now I know that I have a lot more to consider. I have more questions and uncertainty to live with. I have a difficult dance with self-honesty and awareness.

To take a further step towards honesty, I’ll say it’s really scary. It’s like existential angst all over again. Unfortunately, I don’t think Albert Camus wrote a disabled version of The Stranger or The Myth of Sisyphus.

However, I’m glad Witty Ticcy Ray inspired the question. Given the length of the problem and the uncertainty surrounding the end, it was going to pop up eventually.

As always, thanks for reading.

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1. The quote at the beginning is from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. Put it on your reading list if it isn’t there already. Witty Ticcy Ray was a man who had Tourette’s and was given Haldol to stop them. He became angry because he it took away his wit and quick reflexes. However, he still faced the problem of not being able to live a normal life with them.

2. When I wrote and shared Living with Chronic Pain, I was surprised at how well it was received. To everyone who read it, thanks for giving me the confidence to write more about disability. Hopefully, it’ll not only help me but other people who have disabilities, and those who are simply interested in it.

3. Here’s some more stuff to read:

The last two are positive articles about disability. I’m not sure if I share their enthusiasm but it’s also important to consider that mine is much less severe than theirs. It’s always good to have differing opinions about this subject rather than an echo chamber.

4. There have been a lot of end notes. Here’s another one.

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[1] Julian Savulescu and Guy Kahane offer a definition of disability in The Moral Obligation to Create Children with The Best Chance of the Best Life. I think I satisfy it but it doesn’t take away from the question.

A stable physical or psychological property of subject S that,

(1) leads to a significant reduction in S’s level of well-being in circumstances C, when contrasted with realistic alternatives,

(2) where that is achieved by making it impossible or hard for S to exercise some ability or capacity, and

(3) where the effect on well-being in question excludes the effect due to prejudice against S by members of S’s society.

Or more simply, had x condition not existed then the person’s well-being would be higher. But it excludes things like not being able to fly as a disability… so far.

Live with Questions

Big questions. The type of question that apparently has no answer. Questions that result in debates which devolve into shouting matches. Questions that are discussed with friends in a park without noticing how serious the conversation has become.

Such questions have unfortunately been met with quick dismissal because they lack an easy answer. And the statement ‘We can’t figure it out! Stop asking about it!’ is uttered by the frustrated.

This attitude is often damaging and unhelpful. Some questions demand vigorous thought and conversation. They test patience and sanity. However, what they’re unlikely to do, is make life drastically worse for existing.

I say this because they have another function beyond being in an introductory philosophy book.

They foster powerful conversation between friends, give us a chance to exercise freedom of thought and help us learn more about ourselves, the world and the people we share it with.

They force us to live with uncertainty and find peace in it.

Take the question ‘What is the good life?’

Thinking about this question for only a few minutes opens us up to the huge possible answers you could give. To this question alone the answers have ranged from serving God to finding peace in a secular place to being virtuous to living with as much pleasure as possible. Some great minds have been trying to answer this and solve our contradictory yet equally appealing opinions for thousands of years. However, the lack of a definitive answer does not signal towards its insignificance.

In part, the value of the question comes from the process of trying to answer it, not just the answer settled on. Engaging with the questions opens us up to personal beliefs previously hidden to us which are then challenged and defended or dismissed. They can potentially change our lives simply because they’ve given us a new perspective on problems that we may never have taken seriously.

For example, we all know about avoidable poverty that persists in the world and tend to think it’s a bad thing but asking whether we’re all morally equal humans can change our opinions on whether we should give to charity. If we decide not to give to charity we can begin to develop our answer beyond a stutter and a hurry to change the topic.

Thinking about the questions, we might come closer to a satisfying answer that we may never have realised was in our grasp. But only by grappling with it for a while (or for some, their whole lives) can we do this. Everyone can be told answers to questions without any personal engagement but refusing to do some of the work ourselves stifles our gift for curiosity that should be grown instead of stifled.

If we find an answer we like, then all the better. If not, we can still enjoy the discussion. We then find that saying ‘I don’t know’ shouldn’t make us anxious. It’s a normal part of dealing with difficulty and practising some humility in the process.

It is important to note that I’m not demanding we live with every question in the world. There are many I currently have little interest in (No, I don’t know what an object is Mr van Inwagen.*) and some I have lived with for so long they aren’t invited for dinner any more. We all have different interests and some are more central to our everyday lives than others but we mustn’t dismiss them simply because of their difficulty.

To live with a question means we sometimes invite it over for some food and drinks, chat for a short while, crack a few jokes, realise you’re personifying a question for the sake of a metaphor and then, when the night is over, thank Ms Big Question for the enriching conversation. Maybe afterwards you’ll call Mr and Mrs 300-page-book for some help.

Live with questions and embrace the complexity they bring.

Live with questions and allow them to enrich your thinking.

Live with questions instead of wishing for their death.

If the questions die then the answer goes along with it and more importantly so does our thought.

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* Peter Van Inwagen is a philosopher who has written about what objects are and determined they’re either elementary particles or living organisms.

Some other stuff:

Keeping Alive The Big Questions

Why I read