"We give others the courage to do great things by our own example of doing great things." - Steve Ackerman, the first paraplegic to bike around the world on a hand cycle.
I recently had the opportunity to enjoy a family vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. One of the activities we hoped to accomplish while vacationing was a nice hike in the Smoky Mountain National Park. This would be a first for my wife and daughters, and something I haven’t done since I was a young teen.
After doing some research we selected the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail entrance to the park and then a hike up to Grotto Falls. The website rated this hike as “moderate” due to it’s relatively short distance of just over two and a half miles round trip. Of course, to us Floridians the distance was much less intimidating than the change in elevation that had us climbing up/down with every step. Additionally, what they generously describe as an “unpaved” nature trail is actually a trek over tree roots between three inches and two feet in height interspersed with rocks varying in size from golf balls to garbage cans. In short, I realized less than a quarter mile into the hike that I was in trouble.
I used the quote above because I have been impressed with Steve Ackerman’s accomplishments for many years. However, he is an exceptional athlete who happens to have a disability. I am a blind, middle aged, couch potato whose career consists of sitting in a chair for hours on end broken up only occasionally by a short walk to the coffee cart. An athlete I am not. Having been blind for more than a decade now I have learned to adjust my approach to many things in life, but mountain climbing hasn’t been one of them.
Our choices were clear: either I wait at the car while my wife, daughters, mother, and step father go on without me, or we send the kids up with their grandparents while I continue arm in arm with my wife at a painstakingly slow pace as she verbally directs me toward each step and over each obstacle. Fear baited me to quit, but the opportunity to parent by example kept me moving forward.
The trail was stunningly beautiful. Some sections were as narrow as four feet with vegetation on one side and a forty foot drop on the other. We stopped many times to take pictures of the streams, the forest, and the views of adjacent mountains. At the top of the climb was a waterfall and pool that looked like the cover of an outdoors enthusiast magazine. Of course, I couldn’t enjoy any of this as it amounted to nothing more than a rocky, slippery, uneven climb followed by an equally difficult descent. All of which I experienced in the kind of darkness known only to someone who has had the gift of sight and then lost it.
My reason for taking on this challenge and seeing it through was simply for the teachable moment it provided my children. My daughters are six and four years old right now, so I can’t be sure how much detail they will remember, but the pictures and discussion of the memory over time will develop a two part narrative. First is an example of the level of teamwork and trust integral to a strong marriage. It is one of my greatest hopes that someday both of my daughters will do marriage well. The second narrative I hope they draw from this experience is that a lack of ability is not an excuse for submission to fear. The condition that blinded me is genetic. There is a chance that either or both of my children will someday face the same struggle. I want their view of the world and it’s difficulties to be that all obstacles are inherently surmountable when you choose your partner wisely and face your fears with a positive attitude and honest effort.
As a professional marriage counselor and blind adult I could (and surely will) tell them my views on how to build a strong marriage and deal with adversity. I doubt though that my knowledge shared in words will be nearly as effective as the behavior I model through my actions and decisions.
In closing I would ask each and every parent who reads this to consider the adult you want your child to become. Are you doing all you can to lead, guide, and teach by example? What are you teaching your children?
For more on parenting please check out Parenting: What is the best gift you can give your child?