There are times in life when all our troubles pale into insignificance, when all our hardships morph into blessings, when all our complaints seem very trivial indeed. This happened quite a lot to me when I had a television and was regularly subjected to images of emaciated children covered in flies, slowly starving to death before my eyes. I suspect that I’m not alone when I admit to having become inured to such tragedy. Deluged by media commentary, drowned in graphic content, I now sadly view these events as just another headline; just one more still shot in the montage of human misery that happens to someone else, somewhere else. The Internet has reduced the distance between your home and mine to milliseconds rather than miles; it has also distanced me from reality by creating a virtual world that has little bearing on my own. Although I try to do good things, to be a good person, and to live a good life, when someone breaches that wholesome goodness and lays siege to my soul, I am perhaps more troubled than most.
Last weekend, in the Uránia theatre on Rákóczi út, TEDxDanubia played out before an audience of 460 people. A full day’s programme of speakers lined up ready to delve into our imagination, to stimulate, to motivate, and to entertain. This independent TED event is the brainchild of Vis Mentis, a Budapest-based non-profit social enterprise founded by Mányai Csaba and Szénási Zoltán in 2010. Their mission is to initiate and drive projects that focus on quality of life rather than simply standard of living; projects that reconcile progress with sustainability and build on the power of social innovation and responsibility (where have these two lads been all my life?). The event brought together a heady mix of composers, ethologists, food urbanists, mathematicians, spiritual diplomats, statisticians…a veritable KITE fest of knowledge, inspiration, talent, and experience. I had been smugly evaluating each speaker for content and delivery, measuring their performance against how I might have fared, were I a subject matter expert on anything other than being single. It was late in the day, coming towards the end of the final session, when the penultimate speaker took the stage and shattered my self-assured complacency.
John P. Foppe walked out, sat down, opened a can of Coke with his toes, poured it into a glass and holding it by his foot, raised it to his mouth and drank; he was born without arms. You’ll no doubt think me cruel and heartless when I confess to a fleeting moment of awe which was quickly replaced by the pragmatic reflection that not with all the yoga practice in the world would I ever be dexterous enough to imitate that particular move. The cynic in me braced herself for a down-home, American-style dish of ‘survival against the odds’, which would be inevitably followed by dessert in the guise of a book plug. So when he began by telling us that he had created his own disability, I sat up and began to take note. This was no ordinary man, and this would be no ordinary presentation.
In his allotted 18 minutes, John P. Foppe explained that at the intersection of what we see (our perceptions), what we do (our practice), and what we are (our emotional reactions) lies reality. And as co-creators of our reality, we need to start taking some responsibility. Having no arms is a condition that he was born with; but he created his own disability. John’s mother, tired of his aggressive, manipulative ‘woe is me, help me out here’ attitude, and fearful that he would never live an independent life, rallied his seven brothers under the banner of tough love and made them promise not to help him unless they could see that he was making a genuine effort to help himself. His descriptive account of the first day he tried to put on his pants, unaided, at the age of 10, was both tragic and comical. His account of that pivotal moment, when he realised that he had a choice to make, cut to the bone. It has made me reflect on the conditions in my own life that have become a disability… conditions that are holding me back.
As he pointed out, the only real handicaps in life are the small thoughts that blind us, the hardened feelings that deafen us, and the irreproachable excuses that paralyze us. And yes, suitably chastened, recognising that he had indeed hit a nerve, I bought the book. What’s your excuse (Thomas Nelson, 2002) has also been translated into Hungarian under the title Vállalod? The video of John’s talk will be available soon on www.tedxdanubia.com