Default to Compassion

Fantasy author Bryan Davis wrote, “Assumptions are unopened windows that foolish birds fly into, and their broken bodies are evidence gathered too late.” But I prefer my grandfather’s take on the matter. He always told me, “Jamie, when you make an assumption you make an ass out of you and ‘mption.'”

My amazing MS Walk 2010 team---The French Foreign Lesions
My amazing MS Walk 2010 team—The French Foreign Lesions

For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nine years ago. If you don’t know what this disease is, I’ll tell you in a nutshell. It is a chronic disease that attacks the central nervous system. Symptoms may be mild or severe, depending on which course of the disease a person has. The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another. If you want more information, you can visit the homepage of the National MS Society and read until your heart’s content.

I am among the 85% of MS patients who have relapsing-remitting MS, which means it comes and goes and never progresses. Basically, I have an exacerbation every so often. It doesn’t get worse each time, but each time I experience one, permanent damage is done. Depending on where it attacks my nervous system, I could lose the ability to see, walk, or remember. These periods of disability could last weeks or months. I might recover from them. I might not. As you can imagine,when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t take it well. In fact, I wrote about it last year in In Touch Magazine, which you can read here.

I’m not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me. I’m telling you so you can better understand the rest of this post. I am handicapped. Not everyday. Not all the time. But because of my disease, things have changed. I sometimes become incredibly fatigued—so much so that it takes me several days of rest to recover after a stressful week. I am also more prone to headaches and body aches of various sizes and intensities. When I’m tired, my feet often go numb. My vision gets blurry at times, which makes it much more difficult to do my job, to read music, and even to drive.

That’s why I applied for a handicapped permit using a form signed by my neurologist who I see every three or four months. There are times when I need to save my energy. I live in the South, and it can get fairly warm. (If that’s not the best example of litotes I’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is.) Heat isn’t great for MS and can actually bring on an attack, so when it’s 98 degrees with 100 percent humidity, I might whip that parking pass out to cut some time out of my walk across a parking lot. However, I try not to abuse it. If I’m feeling okay or there’s only one handicapped space left, I leave it and go in search of another one. Why? Because I know someone else who has a disability might need that space more than I do.

But if several are open, I feel I have the right to utilize one, which is what I did today when I went shopping for a few new outfits. When I came out, I found a note tucked under my windshield wiper.

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I’ve been harassed for using a handicapped space before, so this is nothing new. But what galled me was the fact that this person automatically assumed that, because I wasn’t using a walker, crutches, or some other device, I wasn’t “allowed” to park where I did. There are dozens of diseases including fibromyalgia, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis where patients look perfectly “fine” on the outside but are struggling to get through the day thanks to extreme pain and fatigue.

Having one of these “invisible diseases” has taught me just how important it is to never judge someone or her situation before I know all the facts. I have no idea what burdens a person is carrying during the course of a given day. And even if someone does something that I don’t agree with or that hurts me personally, I try not to retaliate because I have no way of knowing what the source of that anger is. I always try to smile at people, to say hello, thank you, and excuse me. I always try to give a person a kind compliment. I open doors for people. I share. I do these things not because I’m a saint, but because I know how much those small gestures meant to me when I was at my lowest.

But that’s not what this person did. He or she assumed I didn’t have a care in the world, that I felt perfectly fine. (For the record, I didn’t. Long Friday = Tired Saturday) Instead of thinking about the situation and giving me the benefit of the doubt, he or she felt the need to wag a disapproving finger in my direction. And rather than confront me directly, which a few people actually have done, this person chose to tut-tut-tut me from a safe distance where I couldn’t explain my situation. To me, it was cowardly. Haughty. Pharisaic.

Dear Sir or Madam, I really am handicapped.

I may not have looked like it to you. I may not have lived up to your preconceived notion of what a handicapped person is, which is yours and yours alone. And that doesn’t make me wrong. It makes you wrong for addressing a problem only you thought existed.

If I could give this disease (and the handicapped parking permit that comes with it) back, believe me, I would. I would love to live without yearly MRIs that show me what new parts of my head are damaged by lesions. I would truly prefer to live without the small splinter of fear that’s permanently stuck in my heart–the one that pricks me when I think about waking up one morning and not being able to see, to think, to walk, or to care for myself. But, as there is no cure for multiple sclerosis yet, I can’t. I’ve learned to live with it, to embrace it, and to recognize it is one of the many things that has shaped me into the woman I am today.

You began your question with “What if…,” and I would like to respond in kind. What if another person’s life is much more complicated than you thought? What if you considered things from my perspective and reacted with kindness rather than judgment? How much better would your life and mine have been today if we had crossed paths and exchanged a kind word instead of a critical one? I don’t know how you felt after leaving the note—justified, righteous, maybe proud. But I know how I felt the moment I saw it. I was deflated and even a little ashamed for something that isn’t my fault. Today, you reminded once again that compassion isn’t everyone’s default setting, and I am more determined than ever that it will always be mine.

In a Manner Worthy of the Saints

I have had a lot of conversations with the ceiling this year. Most of them begin with, “Are You sure, Lord? I mean really sure?” Most of the time, this question pops out of my mouth when He’s asking me to do something for which I feel woefully unprepared. I know He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—that everything that happens does because He has the perfect knowledge and power to make it so. However, I sometimes look at where I was eight or nine years ago and compare it to now, I am speechless.

At In Touch Ministries, I serve as an editor and a writer for the magazine, which is something I never imagined myself doing a decade ago. But, in all that time, He was preparing me spiritually to do the things He has ordained. I am humbled beyond measure that the Creator of the universe not only knows me and calls me His child, but also loves me enough give me a talent with which to serve Him. In short, this article is proof that God is truly in control.

I taught a wonderful young woman named Catie Carter who passed away in June of 2010, but before she left, she managed to touch thousands of people in the Jacksonville area. God wasn’t content to let it stop there though. Because of His perfect plan, I was in a position to share her testimony with millions of readers around the world. I have no idea how many people the Lord will touch as a result of this connection. But He does….and always has. I simply cannot wait to see what happens!

I would like to thank Catie’s family–her parents, Jimmy and Kerri, and her siblings, Emily, Jimmy, Lindsay, and Ellie–for being willing to share their precious girl’s story with me. Because of your courage, faith, and strength, people you and I will never know will have a chance to meet her and will be changed as a result.

**In Touch Magazine is a free monthly publication. If you are interested in subscribing, please visit this website.**

Duct Tape Really DOES Fix Everything!

A week or so before Christmas, there was a family sitting on a corner in our neighborhood. They were holding posters covered in pictures of their dog that had run away a day or so before. They were on that corner most of the day, even into the twilight hours, and they flagged over anyone who looked half interested in helping them keep an eye out for her.

The next day, these little signs, smaller versions of the posters, showed up on trees and telephone poles around that same intersection and up and down the other nearby streets. Each one had at least four color photos and was in a sheet protector to keep it clean and dry. There are quite a few folks in our area who have dogs of their own and make use of the tree-lined sidewalks both morning and afternoon canine constitutionals, naturally keeping their eyes (and noses) on the lookout for the MIA hound. I’d also like to think that more than one Twilight Bark was sent out to aid in the search, but as I’m human, I’m not privy to that dependable line of communication.

Anyone who has had a pet run away can tell you it is a gut wrenching experience. Traffic, other animals, cruel humans, and the elements—any of those things can harm a critter used to “three hots and cot” in a home where they’re loved and cared for. Sometimes, a kind person finds them and brings them home; other times, they wander back into the yard of their own accord.

However, more often than not, the four-legged members of our families don’t make it back. In fact, according to the American Humane Society, over ten million pets are reported missing every year, and only 17% of lost dogs and 2% of lost cats are ever returned to their owners. Our dog, Shadow, who passed away in 2010, was an old fella by the time the pet microchip came out. His digging under the fence and chasing squirrel days were long behind him. However, I couldn’t imagine owning a dog today without having this device, especially in a large city where thousands of animals go unclaimed and are put down. There are quite a few companies who sell the chips for less than $100, and they can be implanted by your veterinarian. After that, they need to be registered in state and national databases so your buddy can be returned to you, and that registration needs to be updated every time you move. It really requires little to no effort, and it more than doubles the chances of finding your lost pet.

I just wanted a reason to put a picture of Shad Shad in a blog…

I don’t know about you, but the sight of those handmade “Lost Dog/Cat” posters always breaks my heart because I remember what it was like to wait for a cat that never came home. (Shadow also vanished a time or two, but he was never gone for more than a few hours. Still, that was not much fun for little Harpo if you know what I’m saying.) What makes it worse for me is when those posters continue to hang, week after week, until they’re so soaked with rain they disintegrate and fall from their tacks or shrivel up like a mummy and fade in the blistering heat. Eventually, they all disappear, and I never know the outcome of the story. I try to imagine the positive in all cases, but I know that statistics don’t lie.

However, with the Yorkshire Terrier in my neck of the woods, I saw something I had never seen before. A few days ago, each and every one of the signs were still hanging there, with one addendum, a huge piece of duct tape on which the phrase “We Found Her” was written in black Sharpie marker! I’m no graphologist, but judging by the jaunty, bubble shaped letters, I can imagine the girls who got their dog back were pretty John Brown thrilled about it. 🙂

The courtesy of this gesture touched me deeply. Not only was I happy beyond measure that that dog was home with its family,  but I was also grateful that a group of people cared enough to update the status of their situation in a simple but obvious way. As far as I’m concerned, that sign can stay up forever. It reminds me that happy endings are possible and that kindness both exists and is rewarded.