Weakness and Strength | GUEST OPINION

Elena is an elite college athlete. At 6 feet 5 inches she is beautiful and elegant, strong and poised. She is the top-scoring women’s basketball player in the nation, averaging 3 points per game more than the next closest player.

This season she led her team, the previously unremarkable University of Delaware Mud Hens, to an improbable 30-1 season and a Number 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. She has always been exceptional, having been offered a basketball scholarship by North Carolina when she was still in middle school.

Lizzie is Elena’s older sister. Lizzie is blind and deaf, and has autism coupled with cerebral palsy. Confined to a wheelchair, Lizzie experiences Elena through smell and touch. According to newspaper accounts, Lizzie’s face lights up in a radiant smile in Elena’s presence. Elena takes Lizzie on long rides so Lizzie can feel the wind on her face or to the pool where she relishes the simple joy of being wet.

Lizzie is “my angel and my motivation,” Elena told a reporter recently. “She’s everything to me.” What could this elite athlete, this extraordinary human specimen, this paragon of success — possibly need from such a person as Lizzie?

Apparently quite a lot. The whole reason Elena plays for lowly Delaware instead of national powerhouse Connecticut, where Elena walked away from a basketball scholarship and the chance to win championships and fame, is so she can be with Lizzie. What could these two sisters, so different by all outward appearances, possibly share?

Stories like this of people who appear weak inspiring and enabling people who appear strong fascinate me. What is the lesson here? What qualities are at work, and how can the rest of us get in on the action? Perhaps the answer lies in our own idea of what constitutes weakness and strength. Who among us would not choose Elena’s life of success interrupted by occasional challenge over Lizzie’s life of challenge interrupted by occasional simple pleasures and the joy of her sister’s company?

Yet there is a strength in Lizzie that Elena clearly depends on. Perhaps they are not as different as they appear. Perhaps their very difference is a source of strength. Lizzie in her wheelchair with her challenges and simple joys keeps the high-flying Elena grounded. Lizzie is a source of purity, a source of wholeness, that complements and even transcends the success Elena experiences at the surface level where we spend most of our time.

People like Lizzie whose developmental conditions preclude a life lived only on the surface can reveal and connect us to deeper places in ourselves, to sources of value more important than “success.” Elena is so lucky to have Lizzie, someone to show her where real value lies — in the feel of wind and water on your skin, in simply being, in having someone to love and someone who loves you. And Lizzie is so lucky to have Elena love her — and need her.

This is the power of diversity, that people who experience the world differently can ground us, can bring us back to what matters, to the core of what it means to be human through mutual engagement.

I have written before about our employee Sean who worked his way up from sweeping floors to joining a work pod in our electronics business that makes complex magnetic components used in aircraft, solar power collectors, and residential power systems around the world.

Sean supports his work pod by being fastidious about the quality and speed of his preassembly work. His work pod supports him by encouraging and calming him when he becomes anxious which, perhaps because of his developmental condition, often happens with some frequency during the course of the workday. What a beautiful synergy, this mutual support and mutual exchange of value that makes everyone’s work experience richer.

So it was with great pleasure that I received a photo last week from Sean’s manager showing Sean being trained by one of his teammates in the intricacies of the bobbin cutting machine. Never mind sweeping, and now never mind preassembly. Sean’s fellow workers value Sean, his productivity and attention to detail, and the qualities he evokes in his teammates. Now they are promoting him to a new level of responsibility — not to help him, but because he helps them.

Tom Everill is President & CEO of Northwest Center. Contact him at inside@nwcenter.org.


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