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On Saturday morning, I had the distinct honor of watching the sunrise over the cannon battery at the Middle Head Gunners point in Mosman overlooking the Sydney Harbor. Nearly a year since our collaboration that resulted in the critically acclaimed Future Dreaming, Dan Freene, Kaya Finlayson and I traded the chilly rocks of Antarctica for the balmy breezes of a Sydney morning to commence our next film. What a reunion!
A few hours later, we were joined by a luminous group of individuals who are working to expand understanding around how persons living with a variety of mobility and physical challenges can bring their exceptional talents and perspectives into productive engagement with enterprises and social interactions. Sitting in the shade of a massive tree inhabited by a juvenile kookaburra who wanted to join in our conversation, we began filming the stories of four and then five amazing Australians who had maneuvered across the battery in power chairs and with the aid of a cane. We discussed a variety of themes ranging from the importance of eye-to-eye communication, to care-giving and travel, to perceptions of condescension from those who are not similarly impacted by mobility challenges. Why is it that something like a power wheel chair stands in the way of a smile, a simple “hello”, or an invitation to join in a social function? How is it that a simple technology that is designed to facilitate integration and access can actually heighten a sense of separation and isolation?
With the cameras rolling, the boom mike bouncing from one and then the other, we shared a rich exchange about life, living with purpose, and gratitude. And then came the moment that defined the day. I asked each person to define what wealth means to them.
“Spending the day with friends.”
“Being able to travel to be with family and friends.”
“Greeting someone on the street with a smile and having them smile back.”
As we dove deeper into the meaning of wealth, I found it quite interesting that none of the individuals mentioned a number. None of them mentioned money. None of them mentioned physical artifacts like houses, cars, boats, planes, or stuff. Each of them saw wealth as what I’ve used to define the principle of Well-Being: the capacity to engage in the ecosystem at liberty without diminishing the options for other to do the same.
According to those who wish to classify and categorize, these individuals were “persons with disability” or “disabled” and they are a “cost to society”. But during our conversation, the technology that was the apparent barrier to humanity melted in everyone’s experience and was replaced by an overwhelming sense of connection and deep appreciation. More profound, however, was the recognition that each of these individuals, when pressed on their life purpose, all had a common impulse to care for others. Several wanted to be psychologists or counsellors. One already worked for a crisis intervention hotline having himself experienced a near-death experience. What became immediately evident was the fact that each one of these people was, in fact, the direct outcome of the sum of their experiences. Knowing the pain of condescension and rejection, they had heightened empathy. Having experienced care necessitated by physical limitations, their definition of value was inextricably linked to connection to others.
Our gathering was not about finding a nostalgic “good story” to accommodate the “unfair” or “difficult” narratives to which we’ve become accustomed. Our gathering was to listen to the wisdom that was seeking to burst forth from those whose voice is so frequently unheard. And in our interaction, what became evident is that a better humanity is not some sort of elusive utopian ideal. When we elect to enter our daily activities with gratitude; when we conscript the matter and energy that is around us and integrate our wisdom into its engagement; when we provision ourselves and maximally utilize the social and physical technologies that allow us to manifest our purpose; then the outcome is one that naturally evokes connection, compassion, and collaboration.
My life is richer thanks to Phillip, Shane, Kate, Shanais, Marc, and Monique. And so are the lives of all of us if we meet them eye-to-eye and listen to the wisdom that comes from a life considerately lived.