By SUSAN ODGERS
---- — In two weeks, many of us will gather around the Thanksgiving table with family and friends.
Depending upon our traditions, there may be a point in the festivities when folks share what they're thankful for this year — other people, what they've learned, what they have, what they gave and more. People may even discuss being grateful for challenges, such as losing a job, the breakup of a relationship, making a mistake and even illness.
When someone says they're grateful for an illness, what do they mean?
Most people who say this come to this realization only after great pain and deep contemplation. They don't say it in a superficial, smarmy, Pollyanna way. This wisdom is hard-earned.
In this sense, illness is seen as a gift. Not the illness itself, but the life lessons that come with it. It would be nice if these lessons could be learned in a less frightening and painful way, but often they can't.
In the new film "127 Hours," lone rock climber Aron Ralston is trapped in a mountain crevasse for five days. He ends up having to amputate one of his arms to survive. While he's stuck, he examines his entire life. He's tested at the core level; the lessons come afterwards. The film's writer/director, Danny Boyle, describes the film as an action movie with a guy who can't move.
Ralston's action is internal. He's moved to make changes in his beliefs, behavior, feelings, his relationships, everything. His dilemma is his way back to a better, bigger self.
When challenges occur, they allow us the opportunity to get real and live raw. There is no pretense that everything can continue as it was. In our surrender, we face our deepest fears: Will I make it? Am I strong enough? Will others help me? Will I survive? Is there a higher power? If we're open to them, our challenges allow us our own revelations.
Like Ralston and many others, I've learned countless lessons from my illnesses. So have the people who love and care about me.
At the deepest level, I know I am so much more than my paralysis. What matters is how I have responded to it. I know I am very strong. I know I am lucky to be alive and that I am here to help others.
I wish I hadn't had a stroke. And I wouldn't give back all that I've learned by having my disability.
Life often doesn't let us have everything we want — or have it the way we want.
Not all people with challenges, including illness, are thankful for or learn from their struggles. For them, there is no meaning beyond the pain and fear. They age and go to their graves none the wiser.
Last week, I had the chance to spend several hours with Jacob, the street corner "dancing sign guy." He told me that he moved from just holding the ad signs to dancing with the signs because of what he saw in people's cars.
"I saw so many people screaming in an angry manner on their cell phones. Some were slamming their fists on their steering wheels. Other stared off into space. People looked so stressed. I decided that there might be a way for me to make them smile and laugh … so I started dancing."
As I stood on the corner with Jacob, aka "Moonbreaker," I saw people smile, honk their horns, wave, give him the peace sign, roll down their windows and ask where he'd been and say how much they'd missed him. Many said they drove all over town looking for his performance.
They seemed grateful and so did he.
The irony of Jacob's current life isn't lost on him. At 20, he's spent most of his life being bullied and taunted by other people. He's a keen observer of human behavior.
"Lots of people told me I wouldn't amount to anything, that I was nothing. They beat me, called me names and just basically messed with me. One day I told a group of people that I was their People magazine. I said I was the most popular per son in the school, because they seemed obsessed with me.
"They still said I was nothing. They didn't get it. I knew I'd prove them wrong. I always knew I was somebody. I turned it around. "
Knowing what a person is thankful for says a great deal about them. It speaks to the center of what they believe and why they believe they are alive.
Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 23 years, has used a wheelchair for 34 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle. For more Adapted in TC columns, log on to record-eagle.com/susanodgers.