A long time ago I learned a humbling lesson from an 11 year old boy.
I had been asked out of the blue if I could do a session in Taekwon-do / self-defence at a school for children with a variety of disabilities. It was a last-minute thing as someone else had dropped out. I asked the person who contacted me what the abilities of the kids were, so that I could plan the session. She told me that some were in wheel chairs but that they could all use their upper bodies and arms, so I planned accordingly. However, this didn’t quite turn out to be the case.
I can still see Ben’s face to this day. I had planned activities such a hitting focus pads, and kicking too for those who could use their legs, but Ben could not move his arms or legs, nor turn his head, he couldn’t move anything at all except two fingers on one hand, which he used to control his electric wheelchair.
When I saw Ben I felt inadequate, unprepared. How could I involve him? Ben could not kick or hit or even hold a pad. How awful he was going to feel watching the other kids enjoying themselves when he couldn’t join in.
As it turned out I could not have been more wrong. Ben was one of the most active participants of all. His big wide eyes watched everything, he had a huge grin on his face the whole time and he kept shouting encouragement to the other kids, “go on, hit it harder!” “Yes that’s it! That was a good one!” “now you hit it Jamie, it’s your turn!” and so on. He was just so excited as he watched the others and shouted his encouragement. It was as though he was doing it himself. How much empathy that kid must have developed living his life as a watcher rather than a doer.
As he couldn’t turn his head, he would use his fingers to control the wheel chair and turn it to watch what was going on. After a while I realised that I might be able to involve him a little more and suggested he swing his chair into the big kick shield. He looked shocked at first when I suggested it, even showed a little trepidation at being asked to join in, but eventually he had a go. It was a success, he found he could swing the chair at the shield as though he was hitting it, and he laughed and laughed, he loved it. But no more so than he loved watching the others, and he was happy to stop after a short time, and watch and encourage the others again.
As a martial artist, so much pleasure in my life has been in doing, aiming to do, pursuing physical goals, but it gets harder and eventually there will come a time where I can no longer do, and that’s where the lesson from Ben comes in; you can derive the greatest of pleasure from watching and encouraging others.