By Joseph Bauers
Paralysis is the intruder slipping through the front door without notice. In my case, it arrived one night as I stepped into the bath to soothe my aching muscles. Almost immediately, it became apparent that the important wires linking my brain to my feet, hands, leg, and arms had somehow short-circuited. Nothing worked. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get out of the tub. I may not have been a man who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, but I had been able to do things. Suddenly, I could not.
You might imagine the sheer panic of this scenario; actually living it is another matter. I will spare you the details of the two-month hospital rehab that followed after a diagnosis of a spinal cord injury, the cause of which remains unknown. I will avoid the dark thoughts that come in the night, and emphasize instead the spirited attempts to restore my body, led by dedicated therapists who, along with my amazing wife, returned me to at least a semblance of normalcy. I can now walk, after a fashion, and I function as best I can with one good right leg, one so-so but improving left leg, one fairly strong right arm and hand, and one unmoving left arm to which is attached, amazingly, a functioning hand. And we're still working on all this, my therapists and I, with the hope that more function will return.
There are obvious lessons. One is that there are still people in this world who know their craft and whose endless reserves of positive thinking can lead even born skeptics like me to a better attitude. Their very existence ought to be an inspiration to those of us who see the modern world as a rather hopeless place.
But hidden in their methodology, I found another lesson. It goes like this: My left arm is the most damaged result of my injury. It hangs at my side, its strength so sapped that it cannot lift itself against the force of gravity. Therapists are not easily deterred, however. They eliminate gravity, to use their term, holding my arm in positions in which manipulations can still be applied in the hopes of restoring lagging muscles and awakening damaged nerves.
It occurs to me that this might also suggest a process to improve the critical thinking of our citizenry. Consider the elimination of gravity as a metaphor. What if we could set aside the dead, outdated or toxic thinking that has with monotonous regularity plagued so much of our public discourse, as do the therapists with gravity? What if we could magically eliminate the oppressive burden of such thinking and focus on the shreds of thought that remain, from which we might cobble together solutions?
Our history is replete with examples. Our founders, as brilliant as they were, did not prohibit slavery in our Constitution. We paid a high price for this mistake — a Civil War and its fallout, remnants of which remain today. It has proved hard to heal our republic with the weight of this moral atrocity holding us down.
Or consider our militarism. After the triumph of World War II, we came to see an ever-expanding military as a strength. Even when President Dwight Eisenhower warned us against the dangers of the military/industrial complex, we continuously enlarged our military, to the point where today its cost exceeds the combined military outlays of the next several countries combined. This vast monetary commitment leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of war without end. If you build the most expensive army on the planet, you will use it.
And so we launch our troops into conflicts all over the globe, and rarely with any real success. The Iraq War, for example, cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives, but also about $3 trillion. A good part of this money was borrowed, so our political leaders, who pretend to hate debt, racked up a major hit on our national credit card. Had we eliminated the fouled thinking that leads to a bloated military, we might have used a sizable portion of that expenditure to put Americans back to work rebuilding our infrastructure.
Today's gun debate is another example. Consider this recent revelation, according to Harper's magazine: At the current rate, deaths by gunshot in the U.S. will exceed deaths by automobile by the year 2015. The auto has been regulated into a much safer product; guns, meanwhile, are on a spiral of deregulation as their lethal capacity has increased. The assault weapon used at Sandy Hook, once banned, was available to the diminutive shooter who could not have wreaked such carnage without it, just as the extended clip magazine was available to the Tucson shooter after it had once been prohibited.
And gun sales after such mass shootings always soar in the aftermath. Despite this ascending line of gun sales paralleled with rising gun deaths, we remain attached to our fantasies, however removed from reality they are.
No, privately owned guns will not protect us from a "tyrannical" government, given that that same government has at its disposal upwards of 5,000 nuclear warheads and countless other weapons of mass destruction; no, guns in the home do not make us safer, given the raft of evidence that proves the contrary; and no, a regulation of weaponry does not mean the elimination of guns, any more than the regulation of automobiles caused their disappearance.
Perhaps being around such good-hearted people for the past few months has softened me. Some would argue that eliminating the weight of bad thinking is an unrealistic goal. They may be right.
Then again, the notion that an arm that's been out of commission for months could yet recover might seem equally outlandish. But I'm not giving up on my arm just yet.
Joseph Bauers is a freelance writer in Champaign. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.