ZauFishan Qureshi – The Girl in the Wheelchair: Feeding on people for our self-esteem

When will we stop feeding on perfectly fine people for our self-esteem?

It didn’t seem abnormal until I saw it happen everyday. There were three girls, all of them teenagers. One of the girls was paralyzed in both legs and used a wheelchair.

I have been a student of human behavior for more than seven years now. Despite having seen some ugly motives hidden behind shiny facades, I want to believe that human beings are innately capable of doing well. After taking a closer look at certain behaviors, however, I have often been surprised by the underlying motives behind our so-called “good actions.” I could give you many examples, but I’d like to focus on my disgust of the girl in the wheelchair.

The popular concept of “disadvantaged” people includes those who are not physically, mentally, emotionally or psychologically capable like the majority of people in the world. I do not buy this definition, at least for people with physical challenges. I do not consider or perceive unusual height, absence or deformity of a body part, or a person in a wheelchair as ‘disadvantaged’. And I bet that you, too, wouldn’t dare to label if you imagined them as your sibling, friend, parent, etc… How would you feel if someone called your child ‘disadvantaged’?

 

Cha Jong-Rye, Untitled
Cha Jong-Rye, Untitled

Physical disability is a term that is used to describe people with any sort of physical deficiency, which makes it difficult for them to perform day-to-day activities. Calling others ‘physically disabled’, points out our own failure to design transportation, buildings, establishments and health care systems for this population. We have failed to imagine the difficulties that people different than the majority might face. We have failed to imagine that they exist. How many top organizations have an equal number of the disabled working along with the able-bodied? Do we have an equal number of rides at amusement parks exclusively designed for kids who are physically different? Have we designed enough vehicles and appliances for these adults? And we call our lack of imagination their disability.

The disgust of the girl in the wheelchair is an expression of truth: Truth is, it mocks the impurity of human motives. It is nauseated by our lack of self-awareness. It mocks our imaginary and exaggerated concept of “Me”, where we see ourselves not as human but as a brand. Being human involves clarity of one’s motives, whereas being a brand involves hard work, inculcating all those behaviors that the world and popular media considers as “good.” The exaggerated Me concept doesn’t let you see and work on your inner motives; it stops you from being good or helpful without seeking attention. It doesn’t let you free yourself from that invisible and non-existent spotlight on you.

I watched it happen for over a month: The girl wanted to move her wheelchair on her own. She was around 16 and had to look to her friends to help her. She wanted to do something on her own, which was, at first, physically challenging but definitely not impossible. She disliked how her friends never left control of her wheelchair. Sometimes she got frustrated and tried to move it on her own. When she tried, a bright smile would appear on her face, but vanish as soon as her friends took control and started moving it for her: Because they cared for their friend; because they were kind; because they wanted to please God; because they were the epitome of all goodness in the world. The exaggerated Me. They chose to ignore the discomfort and frustration on their friend’s face. They chose to help but not to understand.

We often feed on people we perceive as weak in some way for our own self-esteem. In this case, they fed on a perfectly fine person for theirs. They turned a capable person into a powerless one so they could feel good about themselves by “helping” her.

The concept of helping behavior has been studied for many years; however, the motive behind helping behavior is an area that needs to be explored in detail. Researchers have associated being helpful with self-enhancement. Helping someone makes you feel good about yourself (known as Helper’s Halo)— there’s nothing wrong in it, but things can go wrong when you crave a sense of achievement, enhanced self-concept, elevated self-esteem, and the only way you try to achieve it is by helping someone, or worse, by helping someone who doesn’t need any help. In other words, it is a handy trait, in which you do not need any particular skill to increase your likeability. Some people with low self-esteem rely on helping behavior to make favorable impressions on others. For example, in patriarchal societies, men often seek such situations where they can impose their help on women, women who do not wish to be dependent on anyone. These men have created their own version of a weak woman so that they can feel protective and useful. Like force-feeding a person who isn’t hungry at all.

The girl in the wheelchair is a victim of such friends; true empathy in this scenario would be realizing the importance of physical independence for her and realizing that in the long run, making her physically dependent would not benefit her. It is also important to understand that one’s physical ailment does not necessarily predict a poor psychological wellbeing. A positive mental attitude is all you need in life and contrary to popular belief, it can be independent of physical health.

Next time you show pity for someone’s physical ailment, make sure you don’t need it for your own psychological wellbeing. Help someone who really needs or asks for it. And while helping, think for a moment if your particular way of helping is good for them in the long run or not. Work on their strengths. Don’t immortalize his or her weaknesses because the best help we can offer someone is independence.

 

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