By Stacy James, written 1998
Photo: Waterskiing is Stacy’s favorite sport. (Photo by Helen James)
SEVEN YEARS AGO I ENTERED A LIFE I DID NOT CHOOSE. At 20 years old, I broke my neck in a diving accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors told my parents I would never walk again, and I was left with hands that would never again play piano, guitar, or twirl a baton.
I am so thankful that today I can walk with crutches and have functional use of my hands. But daily I deal with a body I can’t control. It takes me twice as long to get ready in the morning, and I almost never sleep through the night. I take three kinds of pills four times a day -– pills that relax my spastic muscles, but that drain my energy and make me tired. My legs constantly feel cold -– sometimes they hurt so badly I can only go to sleep at night and hope they feel better in the morning. I depend on people for so much – to stretch my legs, help with laundry, carry things to my car, vacuum my room and help me pack my suitcases, to name a few. Not to mention maneuvering a wheelchair in a mostly inaccessible world.
Although I cannot control my situation, there is one thing I can control: my attitude. I can let my past, my circumstances, and my failures rob me of my joy; or I can choose to learn from them and press on. Being joyful is a choice. As Chuck Swindoll says, “Life is 10 percent what happens to us and 90 percent how we respond.” It’s not about having the right circumstances. Let’s face it, who has the right circumstances?
So often we let situations determine our state of mind. If things are going well, we are happy. But there is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness comes from external things: what we have, what we do what we look like, who our friends are. And just as external things make us happy, they also let us down: the company get bought out and I lose my job, my boyfriend decides he wants to “just be friends,” my brand-new red convertible Mustang is rear-ended by a teenager. Life takes us up and down.
Joy, on the other hand, comes from within. It is an inner fulfillment, a strength of spirit that can shine even in the midst of extreme hardship. It is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. As Christians, we have good reason to be joyful! God has paid the price for our sins – even the ones we commit over and over again. He has given us eternal life, provided rest for our souls, loves us unconditionally, and gives our lives purpose and meaning. He will never change or go back on His promises. He’s mighty solid Rock. Being joyful is a choice.
Giving thanks for what I have help me focus on the blessings of my life. I may not be able to play piano or twirl a baton like I use to, but I can operate a computer, handwrite a letter, hold a fork, curl my hair with an adaptation on my curling iron, and put on my own make-up. I can complain that it sometimes takes me two-and-a-half hours to get ready in the morning, or I can thank God that I can do it myself. My independence means I can travel, go on a summer project, and spend the night with a friend. Many of my friends with spinal cord injuries can’t even get out of bed without help.
Forgiveness is another way to experience joy. Too many people harbor bitterness in their hearts. It is impossible to live a happy and free life when your heart in enchained with resentment. Often the only person that suffers is you. The person you are angry with may have no idea his actions are eating you up inside. The best thing is to release the anger through forgiveness. When I was rescued from the swimming pool, my friends rescued me the wrong way. Instead of floating me on top of the water and stabilizing my neck, they brought me out of the pool and laid me on the concrete. This could have made my injury worse. If they had stabilized my neck, there is a possibility I could walk today. I have no way of knowing, and it would do me no good to dwell on it and be angry with my friends – who did the best they could -– because I can never go back. I must move forward in forgiveness.
God’s Word is another powerful way I choose joy. Often the world sees a handicapped person as less of a person, as unworthy, as incapable. The Bible, however, ascribes worth to everyone, because God made us in His image, and He loves us. The world says that physical appearance is the most important thing about you; God says it’s your heart. The world says I’m handicapped; God says I’m important enough to send His Son for. When I think I can’t do anything, I trust that I can do things through Christ who gives me strength.
I could be angry that I was handicapped at 20, or I can be grateful that I lived a full life of walking for 20 years. The secret to inner contentment is not having an all-together life. It’s having a heart and mind focused on things above, and choosing not to be ruled by things of this world. When we have an unshakable foundation for our lives, we can be content whatever the circumstances. And –- even in a wheelchair -– be joyful always.
How about you? Are you letting circumstances get you down, or are you choosing to overcome your circumstances with a positive attitude? Where could you start being thankful, forgive someone who hurt you, or see yourself the way God sees you? You are more in charge than you might think!
Copyright 1998, Stacy James.