Lately, I have been thinking about wheelchairs. Sometimes when I drive to work in the morning, I pass a man who is taking his dog out. The man looks to be in his late twenties and sports a military haircut; his legs end at his knees. The dog trots ahead, the man pushes behind, and I think about how different our lives are and wonder what he knows that I do not. We inhabit the same neighborhood but our experiences of this place are so different; what has he noticed that I haven’t seen? Are there places where the curb forces him to find another route or where people’s shrubbery sticks into the spokes of his wheels? Is the sidewalk in front of my house in good shape or are there roots making the cement pop up? I look at the sidewalk in front of my house with a new eye to make sure it’s not a dreaded part of his route.
The morning drive isn’t the only time lately when someone using a wheelchair has caused me to reflect. I play tennis, and a few weeks ago my tennis center requested volunteers for a weekend tournament: wheelchair tennis. I had never watched wheelchair tennis, but I saw this as an opportunity to live out my childhood dream of being a “ball girl.” As a kid, I always enjoyed seeing a “ball kid” run as fast as he or she could to grab a ball that had hit the net and run to the other side, getting out of the way as soon as possible. I could sense the adrenaline, the pressure to stay alert and be present to every stroke. I’d watch Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras on TV gesture for a ball from the person behind him and think about how focused that person was in bouncing it just the right way so that that the player wouldn’t have to think about it. I enthusiastically signed up to help.
Wheelchair tennis is essentially the same game except that the players are allowed two bounces instead of one before hitting the ball. Wheelchair tennis also uses a special chair—its wheels are slanted and there is a small back that allows freedom of movement for the upper body. The players I watched were skilled at moving the chair with one hand, holding the racket with (or having the racket taped to) their other hand. They could move quickly and turn on a dime. I enjoyed watching the matches even when I wasn’t needed on court.
I asked myself many questions during the tournament about what it would be like to need a wheelchair—what I might be like in that situation. I want to believe that if I were in an accident and became partially paralyzed, or if I had been born with a disability, that I would have the motivation and “grit” to take up something like wheelchair tennis, but I’m not sure that I would. And I realize now that using this hypothetical to compare myself to the people on the court was a convenient way to avoid the real challenge. The question is not how I would react to being in the same circumstances as they are—because I’m not—but rather, how I should be responding to my own circumstances with grace. How can I embrace my own crosses and work through my own challenges with more determination? And just as these men need a special chair to play the sport that they enjoy, what are tools that I can use to overcome barriers I face? And just as I was there for these tennis players to wheel their chairs from one court to another, who are the people ready and willing to help me, if I let them?
The circumstances of our lives are what they are, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28). I don’t like the platitude that, “Everything happens for a reason” (in fact, I like the podcast Everything Happens that purposefully rejects it), but I appreciate the continual search for meaning that it implies. I don’t have to know why I have been blessed with physical health or even why I have been given the financial security to allow me to play a sport that I love. I just have to be fully me with all of these gifts and reach out to others in the ways that I can.