In his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, neurologist Oliver Sacks shares case studies of people who have suffered right brain injuries. One of the histories which most stands out to me is that of Madeline J., “a congenitally blind woman with cerebral palsy” in her sixties. Madeline is unable to use her hands, but Dr. Sacks cannot find any physical reason that should be the case. They start experimenting with ways for Madeline to “discover,” “acquire,” “to achieve” her hands. She does and becomes a sculptor at age sixty, living out the last stages of her life in a Catholic hospital.
What sticks in my mind is that the simple assumption by others that “she can’t” led to a life where Madeline was never asked “to,” and to such an extreme degree that she had never used her hands to do anything her entire life. It wasn’t until a stranger, looking at the facts from a different angle, questioned that assumption that her hands were transformed from “Useless, godforsaken lumps of dough” into sensitive tools for shaping clay. I wonder at the simplicity of that change: the basic shift from “I can’t” to “Why can’t you?” A movement from “Do it for me” to “Show me how.”
It is the same story we read in the first verses of Acts 3 where Peter and John heal a man “lame from birth.” The one about whom everyone believed “he can’t” suddenly “discovers,” “acquires,” “achieves” his legs and, not only walks, but leaps into the temple. In the story, the man looks at Peter and John “expecting to receive something from them,” but they respond by lifting him up instead. They say, “You can. Let me show you how.”
Some things I think you can take away from these stories:
- Are you or your faith community being asked “to” something?
- If there is an “I can’t” in your life, or the life of your faith community, try a different angle; ask instead, “Why can’t you?”
- Seek mentors, teachers and friends who, though they won’t do it for you, are willing to work with you and help you figure out how.
- Exploring the reasons you think you can’t will lead to discovery, acquisition or achievement of skills and abilities you never knew you had.
- The reclamation of Christ’s hands and feet to shape and leap your way into a new tomorrow.