Reason Taught Me Selflessness

By Joe E. Holman

I distinctly remember looking at my cell phone. It was 3:04 PM on a Monday afternoon. I was at Walmart, picking up some groceries - some groceries I had to come back to get since I had forgotten them an hour and a half earlier! It was a busy day. I remember sweating and rushing around. I was tired and decided I would grab a quick bite to eat at the MacDonalds store inside before getting in the check-out line. I thought to myself, “Finally, a chance to sit down and just vegetate for about 30 minutes and enjoy a nice cold, double-chocolate milkshake with a Big Mac and super-sized fries!” The thankfully short line at the counter I had to wait in wasn’t that bad. All I wanted was to sit down and rest. My legs were aching, but it wasn’t long until I had my food and was seated comfortably. It was just too good to be true that day. Not a moment after I sat down, I was jolted out of my relaxation by what I saw...

A quaint-looking middle-aged mother with her paraplegic son approached my area of the dining room. Of the relatively few people in the restaurant, not a one of us could look in that direction without shooting off a tiny smile of pity (you know, the kind that severely handicapped people always get, but don’t want?). She wheeled him towards my table and ended up sitting at one of the wheelchair-accessible tables just across from me. I couldn’t help but notice this hideously ugly boy. He was wearing a dirty, light blue, long-sleeved shirt with the whitest albino skin I’d seen in recent memory. His arms were flailing, twisted, and deformed, drawing attention to the rest of his gaunt, crippled body. He couldn’t have been older than 10 or 12. The bones in his pale face were pointed and unnatural looking. His tongue would hang out and his vacant eyes would stare straight ahead and upwards as his misshapen head wobbled repeatedly up and down. He couldn’t keep still. He would squirm so much, he shook those tremendous bags of medical equipment attached to the wheelchair. His mother was feeding him. The patience of that woman was remarkable as she kept on assisting him while massive chunks of food fell out of his mouth, dirtying his stained shirt and the floor all around him.

Now my mind is on my busy day, and when I am trying to complete a task, I am as single-minded and inflexible about it as they come. I don’t want to be bothered. I don’t want to have my down time interrupted. I can’t stand the nasty sight of this boy. I would not have been able to eat had I not positioned my chair to look away from him. The restaurant was small. There was no where else I could sit to avoid seeing or hearing him. But I was hungry, hadn’t eaten all day. I was angry and disturbed, thinking about all the chores I had left to get done by the evening. Then, just when I thought I was going to drop my mind into the proper channel to actually enjoy a bite of the lucious grease burger that sat in front me, it really began, [COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH...etc.] That damn kid was disrupting my meal! The scene became so bad, I pondered just leaving, but remembered I still needed to check out. Oh well, maybe it’ll pass [COUGH, COUGH, etc.]. I was trying to look away, but was compelled to look back at him: spit-up, exactly the color of my milkshake, all over him and his table! I wasn’t going to be able to finish my meal now, I just knew it! Nothing had gone right this day and here I was being deprived of one of my few pleasures in life - eating! When this happened another four or five times, I wasn’t even hungry anymore! I was angry, damn angry! I couldn’t take my mind off his slobbering all over the place! [COUGH, COUGH, etc.] It continued, made me cringe inside! Every time I would try and look away, this palsied pretzel of a handicapped kid would recapture my attention by spilling more soda, regurgitate French fries, and twist and turn with an open mouth full of food. The twitchy movements and spastic tendencies increased, as did those distasteful moans of disability that sounded like a sick, dying cow [MOOOOAN, MOOANNN, MOOOANN, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, COUGH, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, COUGH, COUGH, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, etc.] By this time, mom had partially chewed food all over her, but you could tell she was used to it. [MOOOAN, MOOOAN, COUGH, COUGH, etc.]The tension was building and my heart started beating faster. I couldn’t believe causality had selected this particular event to happen here and now. The moans got louder. I started to think of ways to wrap up my food and just carry it around with me till I got home, but in the process, I almost spilled my drink because I couldn’t concentrate due to this pitiable specimen of humanity! I so badly wanted to tell the lady to get that damn kid out of there! Why did it have to be happening when I was eating? Why? Why? [COUGH, COUGH, MOOAN, MOOAN, SQUIRM, SQUIRM, REGURGITATE, REGURGITATE, etc.]. The spark was ignited...


No...I didn’t actually say those words, but I had to exercise a feat of self-control like few times in my life to keep from saying them! Then I began to cool reason took hold of me, and after a brief mental pause, I began to perspectivize. When I did, it was as though I slapped myself in the face for being a compassionless, selfish prick.

Here was this poor kid, this horrendous mistake of nature, sitting in a wheelchair, absolutely helpless to his circumstances, having to live in a world of shame and misery, and all I could think about is my blasted milkshake!! Here is a pitiable little being, confined to a life of round-the-clock care and all I can focus on is getting to the check out line quickly and scarfing down grub I can come back and get anytime I want!

This deprepid kid! He’ll never know the touch of a beautiful woman, nor the joy of sex. He’ll never know the independence of choosing and buying a house or a shiny new car. He’ll never know what it is like to run down to the local 7-11 corner store and grab a Big Gulp after a hard workout. He won’t even know the carefree fun of getting drunk with his buddies at a late night party. He should never have been subjected to this life. Someone, some people, should have known better and not let it come to this, but that wasn’t his decision to make. A mistake was made, and he was that mistake...a living, breathing mistake.

But not me. My faculties work fine, physically and mentally. Through and through, I’m a normal guy. I’m no Brad Pitt by any means, but when I go out in public, I never have to worry about being pitied as a freak of nature. I will never have to face the sort of mockery he faces. No sir ‘ee! I can go to the store and do whatever my precious self desires to do when I am good and ready!

But damned if I didn’t come within an inch of losing my head and saying something to that poor mother I would have forever regretted.

Here is this unfortunate woman, waiting night and day on this invalid. Her patience could be seen in her eyes. But I wasn’t thinking about either of them, nor the pain and the difficulties they must face everyday. I was only thinking about me and my precious, ordinary life. I was being selfish, totally selfish.

On their way out, this woman glanced at me, and I have a feeling as perceptive as she seemed to be, she might have been noticing how perturbed people were at her for subjecting them to her son. She glanced at me just for a second as she was about to head out the door, and as she did, I smiled at her to let her know that it was OK with me. I’m sure glad I had that chance.

Better late than never, I became unselfish. I became unselfish not by religion, not by Christianity, not by Islam, not by the principles of Tibetan Buddhism, not by the prevalent influence of so-called “Judeo-Christian Values”, and not by self-help books promoted by that crying-crew homefront known as The Oprah Winfry Show, but by the most valuable thing instilled in us all - reason. No deity was shaking his finger at me, telling me to become unselfish when I put myself in her place and made way for my anger to subside. I became selfless when the reason in me combined with my humanity, and when I remembered that old, cherished saying, “Tears are our common lot.”