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Thursday, January 21, 2016

I Can't, In Fact, "Do Anything I Set My Mind To" (And That's OK)

I can’t “do anything I set my mind to.” Before you dismiss me as a cranky old cynic, hear me out. The idea that “you can do anything you set your mind to” is well intentioned. It’s a staple in kindergarten classrooms and it’s meant to make us feel good. Yet, this adage has always vaguely irked me. It has taken me many years to articulate just why, but as a 22-year-old aspiring adult who is not, in fact, good or even competent at everything, the words are finally coming to me. The insinuation that being able to do “anything” is a simple matter of “putting your mind to it” ignores the very real structural and institutional barriers that exist in the world. It suggests that being unable to do a task is merely a product of not trying hard enough. At the most basic level, the “you can do anything” line ignores the fact that we are human beings, not Barbie and Ken dolls who can flawlessly perform in any role. We all have strengths and weaknesses and that is okay. That seems to me a much better lesson to teach children.
While the phrase “you can do anything you set your mind to” is actually problematic for anyone, my disability has given me much more to ponder on the subject. Living with cerebral palsy, I know that society is especially tempted to tell me that I can achieve “anything”, so long as I grit my teeth and put my mind to it. Surely, you can walk a little further if you try, society says. The media loves the smiling child in the wheelchair who “never says can’t” and applauds her for “not giving up.” Well, I’m going to say something that may never get me on CNN, but is true nonetheless. The word “can’t” is important. The word “can’t” has power. The word “can’t” belongs to you. As a disabled person, this realization has not left me defeated, but instead, free to focus on that which I can do. Free to shape my life and my goals according to my needs. Free to accept that it is not necessary to be able “to do anything” so long as I am proud of the “something” I can do. Rejecting the notion that “I can do anything” has not irreparably damaged my self –esteem or trapped me in a pit of self-loathing. It has given me the tools to lead a happier life.
It has taught me to respect both the abilities and the limits of my disabled body. Knowing and accepting that sometimes, I really can’t “walk a little further” has given me the independence of my wheelchair that is not at all a symbol of failure, but of power. In my chair, I can zip around without fear of falling. I can decide where I’m going and where I am not. I can honor my tired muscles when they tell me they need a rest and save my energy for the “something I can do.” If I smile and set my mind to it, I cannot force the contracted muscles in my legs to make me ride a bike. Even if I mustered a gargantuan burst of courage, a muscle would still rupture and send my patella flying into the neighbor’s garden.  Understanding this has not only kept me out of the emergency room, but has also allowed me to invest my time in activities better suited for me. I shudder to think of all the excellent books and movies I would have missed if I were still hung up on riding that bike… and shudder even more at the image of collecting what once was my kneecap from among the tulips.
I will never hang on the monkey bars, climb a tree, or build a house. If I try harder and set my mind to it, that won’t change.  Thus, finding rewarding things to do within my body’s limits is an easy choice. A non-disabled woman, even one with the most determined spirit, knows that no amount of extraordinary courage will allow her to breathe underwater. It is not because she is not brave or she hasn’t tried hard enough. It is because she is a human being, born with lungs and not gills. Similarly, as a disabled woman, my body was simply not designed to do certain things. Much like the non-disabled woman cannot be expected to curl up in a ball and lament her inability to breathe underwater, I will not call myself a quitter for never climbing that tree. Measuring my achievements according to the standards of someone without a disability does about as much good as holding the non-disabled woman to the standards of a fish.
A story that quickly comes to mind is one about my high school career quiz. I was instructed to sit at a computer and answer questions about my interest in various tasks. I couldn’t help but laugh, as the quiz asked me to evaluate statements such as I would like to fight forest fires and I would like to be a stunt double. I mentioned the ridiculousness of these questions given that I can’t even tie my shoelaces, and was told not to worry about if I could do them, just to think about if I would enjoy them. Generally speaking, my ability to do something without serious bodily injury or a sense of dismal failure is inextricably linked with my level of enjoyment. More importantly, evaluating my interest in an unrealistic goal wastes time that could have been spent honing the skills required to reach a goal tailored to my needs. What I needed in that moment was not “you can do anything” but instead, “you can do something, and whatever that something may be, it is valuable and worthy.” I’m glad I found my way to that conclusion and realized that so many other opportunities to channel my talents exist, even if I can’t be a stunt double. I am also glad that the community isn’t counting on me to extinguish forest fires because that would just be frightening.
That being said, there are always boundaries to push. We have all done something in life that someone once believed we couldn’t. I, too, have accomplished things someone once said were not possible. Occasionally, that someone was me. For example, I never believed I would go away to college. To my own surprise, I graduated from a school nearly 900 miles away from home and managed a circus of personal care assistants to help with my daily needs. Indeed, history has been shaped by people doing things the world thought they couldn’t. I have no doubt that one day; a pioneer will brave a field once thought of as “not for people with disabilities.” But if that pioneer is sitting in a kindergarten class somewhere, she should be told of the battle before her. That big dreams and big change do not come easily. That we live in a world that tells disabled people they can do anything and paradoxically, with its staircases, inaccessible buses, and archaic prejudices makes it difficult to do even the things we must do to survive.
Sometimes, it’s important to push the boundary and strive for something you thought was impossible. Other times, it’s just as important to know that there are some things you can’t do. Having the power to determine the difference is a right that belongs to us all. Especially as disabled people, we are celebrated if “the word can’t is not in our vocabulary.” But here’s a secret: if it isn’t, it should be. You can’t “do anything you set your mind to.” But you can do something- and whatever it is will be amazing.

I "set my mind" to being a gymnast. I smiled a lot and was
very courageous. My handstand still didn't go so well. Damn.

(Image: Me on the floor, "trying to do a handstand." The result of
my attempt is me sprawled on the carpet, lying facedown in the style of a Life Alert commercial).

23 comments:

  1. I had this idea a few years ago about there being two different sorts of limitations related to disability: actual and imposed.

    Actual limitations are things our bodies or brains can't do (or can't do well or quickly or without pain) compared to non-disabled people. The solution to these is largely acceptance, with a heavy dose of finding accommodations technology and ways to get things done given we can't do them the usual way.

    Imposed limitations are those from discrimination or lack of access. They are being told that people with your disability can't do - something that isn't actually true. The solution to these is advocacy and accommodations.

    The problem is that people both ignore the fact that there are real limitations and then act as though imposed limitations are real ones.

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  2. It's an interesting world we live in - one where we're told by mentors, educators, and peers that we can do anything. Then in the blink of an eye, we're adults who still live in that fantasy, not pushing ourselves and thinking that it's all going to be handed to us. I'm not sure exactly why some people (disabled or not) continue to push themselves and others do not, but it is tragic that some never realize their potential because of broken rhetoric.

    Excellent piece overall. Some really great points made.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and reflect!

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  3. As a fellow wheelchair user, I totally understand. Well said. There is definitely a balance between limitations and exceeding expectations.

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  4. This is still hard for me to do. I am constantly thinking of how to balance this. I struggle with it because in the past I did more than I do now, and so I still struggle with I need to try harder because I know I can for myself personally. Especially when it comes to exercise, I will push myself much farther than I probably should and I will continue to do so because I know I see the benefits, and I know I can feel if I get sedentary and incredibly stiff, as I'm sure you know. But there is always a struggle between acceptance and health and independence. Thanks for this! <3

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    1. Thank you Hannah! I agree. Even though CP is not progressive per say, I still have lost a lot of function and that is hard to deal with sometimes. Totally OK to feel sad about that, but I try not to let that be a barrier to finding something else I can still do easily and well.

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  5. I agree with Hannah. My disability is degenerative, and it's hard to come to terms with the ever-increasing list of "can'ts." Remembering that it's okay to not be able to do everything is so important! Thanks!

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    1. I agree. Although CP is not progressive technically, I too have lost a lot of motion and function. It's totally understandable to be sad about that-- sometimes, I am too, especially about my knee problems. But I try not to let that keep me from seeing other things I am able to do.

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  6. I should start off by saying I'm a 39 yo man with CP. I acquired CP from a car accident 38 years ago. I have left hemiparesis. I appreciate what you wrote here, and how articulate you are, but I did not agree with everything in this blog but I did like the metaphor of trying to be a gymnast. It made me laugh out loud.

    My motto has been "I can do anything I set my mind to, within reason." To say I can't, implies defeat. To say I can within reason, implies adaptability and taking control of your own life without depending on validation from others.

    I will never be a juggler, but I can throw a lot of balls in the air and catch as many as I choose.

    I am so glad your belief that you can't go away to college, became I can, within reason and with adaptations. That to me is what an adult does, not an aspiring one. So see, you are already there. You had a goal, and you made it happen. I see this as looking at the limitations and rolling with it (no pun intended).

    Good luck out there, and thank-you for what you wrote here!

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    1. Thank you for reading, Mike! Adaptability/ reasonable accommodation certainly make a lot of things possible, but I don't think saying you can't do something has to mean defeat; in some cases, it's an invitation to let another door open. Also, even people without disabilities have something they can't do, simply because no one is an all achieving superhuman.
      The important message here is to respect that we may not be able to do everything, but we can do something-- and whatever it is counts. I also think it is vital to let people decide for themselves what is beyond the limit of their minds and/or bodies without judging them.

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    2. A lot of people have been hurt (especially disabled people) by the insinuation that their bodies or minds are unable to do something only because they "haven't tried hard enough"- which also implies a character flaw. That is something we all need to get away from as a society. People should have the right to say "I'm not able" or "This isn't for me; I'm better suited for something else" free of judgment. We know ourselves best!

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  8. Totally agree with you here Squeak! May I call you Squeak? :)
    I think where we differ is in the semantics, but as I see we are coming from the same place.

    Don't know if you would find this funny or interesting, but feel free to take a look at my website. www.funnymanmike.com

    I try to talk about disabilities in a way that makes other people look at their own mis(dis)beliefs about what it is to be different.

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  9. Wonderful expression of this concept. Thanks so much for putting this into eloquent, compassionate language. I have shared this with a number of people who will find value in your affirmation of doing what you can spectacularly to make a difference, utilising your strengths well instead of dedicating time to something you may never achieve, or at best reach mediocrity.

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  10. I stopped "setting my mind" to my so-called American Dream. Remember that dreams can come true, but that dreams can also go awry.

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    1. I agree- and sometimes our dream or accomplishment will happen, it's just doesn't look like what we first expected!

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    2. I have a The Great Gatsby-inspired post on it. The title will give it away.

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  11. Hi there. My oldest son was born at 28 weeks and has been diagnosed with CP. He will be 3 in July and can't walk on his own or talk,...yet. He just got a new walker, which he loves. My son is so inspiring to me every day. He is so intelligent and has a great attitude. He gets weekly speech and physical therapy and goes to school. He never feels sorry for himself. I believe that he will do great things. He has already come so far. Thank you for writing and sharing this piece. I still don't consider my son "disabled." He amazes me every day.

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  12. Hi there. My oldest son was born at 28 weeks and has been diagnosed with CP. He will be 3 in July and can't walk on his own or talk,...yet. He just got a new walker, which he loves. My son is so inspiring to me every day. He is so intelligent and has a great attitude. He gets weekly speech and physical therapy and goes to school. He never feels sorry for himself. I believe that he will do great things. He has already come so far. Thank you for writing and sharing this piece. I still don't consider my son "disabled." He amazes me every day.

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