The Power to Give and the Power to Receive
I had this experience a couple years ago that has been haunting me off and on ever since.
When guys go “over there,” they know what they are signing up for. They don’t think they are coming back. Their delusion, if they have one, is that their death will have some kind of meaning: they will die honorably, in the line, pulling their brother out of a firefight. More often, their deaths and incapacity are banal. Snipers, roadside bombs, and friendly fire, never seeing the enemy, with no chance to respond.
So I’m in the 7-11 getting a cup of coffee. There’s this guy, he’s a walking horror. He has been in some kind of fire and it has left its marks on his face. From chin to hairline, he is a mass of scars. He has no eyelids. The fire let him keep his eyes, and I will not repeat any cliché thoughts about how lucky he was to keep them. He has got no hands, no arms below the elbow, and I wonder what the heck he is going to do in this store: he can’t pick anything up or pull any money out of his pockets. He also seems to be missing his tongue—or maybe just the will to use it.
This is evident when he indicates I should go in line ahead of him. I don’t argue with the guy. How could I? The choice I made to avoid dealing with an awkward social situation was, I think, the right one.
Would you go ahead of this man in line? Maybe it seems wrong at some level, and I struggle with the idea. These kinds of things bind me up even without added complications like sacrifice and disability.
But here is a guy who has been rendered in many ways powerless. Maybe he expected to die overseas, not to lose his face and hands and go on living. Now not only can he not unzip his fly if he has to use the toilet, he can’t even articulate the need, or write it or sign it—because he has no tongue or hands. Imagine how potentially disempowering this life would be, especially for a soldier taught to master the environment.
So what power does this man have? That day, he had the power to give away his place in line. I was not going to be the one to take that away from him.
If existentialism is a psychology of liberation, as Schneider and May suggest, accepting with grace whatever a person has the power to give may sometimes be the only appropriate response when they offer it, even if it should cost them more than you are comfortable taking.
-- Jason Dias