Posted in Disability, Essay, General Interest, memoir, Mental Health, Michael Watson

The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part One

Snowy-MorningEditor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part piece on Perfectionism originally posted on Dreaming the World. Part II will post here tomorrow.

I am an elder, and as such I am given the task of teaching and supporting the young. On the Medicine Wheel of this lifetime I am in the Northwest, the place of honoring the challenges of my life, understanding them as best as I am able, and sharing what I have learned with others. Perhaps you will share your thoughts about the experiences I share below; I would greatly value that.

We, along with many others, spent a good deal of time during the past two weeks watching the Olympics. Over time we noticed, especially from NBC’s coverage, that the commentators seem to believe winning and perfection were all important. This is a sad thing. One does not have to watch much before one becomes aware the announcers are ceaselessly pointing out errors and failures. Rather than empathy for the competitors, one is barraged with demands for perfection and minute details about failure to achieve such.  There is very little celebration of the athletes who fail to meet the announcers’ or judges’ criteria.

This hits home on two fronts. The first is cultural. I was raised to appreciate the efforts of all. Winning is fun, but should not shame others. Nor should anyone be left behind after the games are over. Further, perfection was considered suspect. One was advised to build imperfection into one’s art and welcome it in one’s life. After all, we are not the Creator although we are aspects of His/Her creation. Only the Creator can be perfect, and it is likely even S/He makes mistakes; as we are reflective of the Creator this suggests that even mistakes can be good and holy. The unbridled pursuit of perfection endangers the individual and the culture, the community and the ecosystem.

The second part is I am a survivor of Bulbar Polio. My phsysiatrist says I am “a walking quad”; rather than disparaging, this is a simple statement of truth. I have severe neurological injuries; Polio destroyed motor neurons all over my body. My arms and hands have considerably diminished capacity; my legs and feet lack strength and mobility; breathing can be a challenge. I am not perfect by the dominant culture’s standards.

Add to this my Native American heritage and the soup becomes thick indeed. I once heard a man, who understandably thought he was with other Europeans, say something like,  “There is nothing more pathetic than a disabled Indian.”  What are we to do with that? Indeed, what are we to do with NBC’s virtual silence on the topic of the Para-Olympics?

Herein lies the difficulty. One one hand I was encouraged to accept  and honor imperfections. On the other, as a Polio survivor I was taught to do my level best to pass as normal, to overcome limitations, and to forget my illness and its  aftermath. Additionally, as a child in a Native family that was actively passing, I was taught to be invisible, a lesson that surely applied to Polio as well.

It is a profound challenge to resist the limiting messages of our families and the dehumanizing ones of the dominant culture. I have done my best, yet I have also spent much of my life seeking to achieve others’ views of perfection, even though not even normalcy was not an option.This has been painful.

I don’t know whether you have ever thought about the Wounded Healer.  In Traditional cultures ill youngsters are often expected, should they recover, to become healers. I use the term “recovery” loosely. Youngsters who face and survive catastrophic illness may not have the same physical capacities as their normative friends. Yet their illness may also give them abilities and insights not readily available to others. When the child is ill the healers do their best to aid. They also seek to discern the nature of the illness; often such illness are understood to be calls from the spirits, initiations into the realm of healers. When there is a spirit call, training in the healing arts accompanies recovery. The illness frequently leaves a footprint in the life and work of the survivor; he or she becomes a wounded healer, knowledgeable about many of the territories and challenges that accompany illness.

This is a different model than the academic learning focus of the West. Of course, the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they may intersect, even overlap at times. Both address the needs of the body. Some Western trained healers have adopted the Indigenous understanding that the soul and psyche must also be attended to.  (Milton Erickson, although not to my knowledge Indian, comes to mind as someone who walked both roads well.)

I have come to this point on the Medicine Wheel by living my life from within this severely injured body. This is a sharp contrast to the physically perfection of elite Olympic athletes, or the health and wealth gurus we see on PBS and on innumerable infomercials. The television sages convey the message to us that illness, poverty, loneliness, and all other forms of suffering are moral failures. They do not speak this directly, rather they hold up their carefully managed perfection as a mirror to our human frailties. They offer advice, even salvation; for a fee we can be just like them. But I, and many others, cannot.  The very lifestyles they espouse harm us, and endanger our precious planetary ecosystem and all that lives therein. Where, I wonder is their wisdom and compassion?

We approach the Spring, the East in the Abenaki view of the Medicine Wheel, the place of rebirth and awakening. I am curious how my changing understanding of this beloved, traumatized body will blossom in the coming year.  I wonder whether our culture can set aside the deeply held values of independence, competition, and perfectionism that shaped the  our country (the very ones espoused by those television commentators). Can we own our imperfections, and acknowledge the harm we have inflicted on ourselves and so many others, inside and outside our country? Can we embrace those who suffer illness, poverty, displacement, abuse, or isolation?

As we follow the journey of the sun into the East, we are invited to begin again, to open our eyes and practice compassion and understanding. May we  find the courage to do so.

– Michael Watson, Ph.D.

© 2014, essay and photographs (includes the one below), Michael Watson, All rights reserved

michael drumMICHAEL WATSON, M.A., Ph.D., LCMHC (Dreaming the World) ~ is a contributing editor to Into the Bardo, an essayist and a practitioner of the Shamanic arts, psychotherapist, educator and artist of Native American and European descent. He lives and works in Burlington, Vermont, where he teaches in undergraduate and graduate programs at Burlington College,. He was once Dean of Students there. Recently Michael has been teaching in India and Hong Kong. His experiences are documented on his blog. In childhood he had polio, an event that taught him much about challenge, struggle, isolation, and healing.

17 thoughts on “The Olympics, Polio, and the Medicine Wheel, Part One

  1. You are quite right. I didn’t watch the Olympics much because what I saw didn’t charm me. I understand it is nice to win after 4 years of hard work. But often it was about defining number 1 by rounding to the nearest hundredths. That is a very small definition of winning, isn’t it?
    I saw some sportswomen and sportsmen doing a little prayer before their race. When they won, it was all a display of ego. Arms in the air; ‘Look at me, I’m the best’. Where was that help then, they prayed for? And the humbleness that goes with it, if you take your prayer seriously? And then the money thing. Like with football, even the winter Olympics have become big money. I don’t mind people earning money, but what are we looking at? Earning thousands of Euros bonuses by winning by the hundredths. I find that a bit hard to enjoy.
    I agree with you that more focus on the effort would be a much better focus, especially for our children.


    1. Paula, thank you. I actually love watching the beauty and grace of the Olympic athletes. The money, ecological and social impacts, and the rampant degradation of athletes leaves me stone cold.I have know some athletes who always pray before competing, mostly asking for focus and courage to do their best. That said, I often become quite concerned when folks pray to win. I do not believe the Creator cares much for choosing athletic sides.


  2. As always your pondering reaches in to touch the heart and soul of the matter, Michael. What we have lost in this general culture of perfectionism is an understanding of the difference between precision and perfection, between a responsible and dignified effort (however much it might “fail”) and sloppy work, and respect for individual norms vs. the mythological norms. Precision, responsibility and dignity, and individual norms are the actions and attributes to be accepted, honored, applauded when they do no harm to others.

    I don’t think there is a true general “norm.” Born an “illegitimate” child (an imperfection as real as physical deformity) in 1950 into a culture, religion and a family whose bias shows in that adjective, invisibility was my best defense. I grew up as excess baggage, rather like foster children, shifted from one household to another or sent to camps and convent schools. “Rules” and “norms” were constantly redefined by different socially-sanctioned families or administrators, gifting me with the insight that what we label “normal” is more individual and idiosyncratic than we’d like to admit and that hypocracy is endemic. The same people who were crucifying me and my mother for my start in life – something I had no more control over than race, appearance, or physical disability – went to Mass every Sunday to worship a bastard God and a Mother-Goddess who was saved from shame by the kindness of a stranger. This was a great gift, though it may not sound like it. Once I was fifteen and on my own, I felt only minimally constrained to make myself fit in and, as the wounded healer, life gave me the opportunity to work with ex-offenders, foster youth, and poverty-stricken, further gifting me with a refined sense that precision, not perfection, is the true value and that difference is the only real norm. It is – as today’s kids say – “all good.” In the end, our imperfections may be the key to our freedom or at least our free-thinking.

    Today, as an older adult with graying hair and visible means of life-support, I am learning anew what it means to be invisible and to have – when seen – people make assumptions based on what they believe is apparent. I have even greater sympathy for and with those who have had to cope with such all their lives.

    Thank you for sharing another fine piece, Michael. I look forward eagerly to tomorrow’s post.


    1. Jamie, I am both saddened and moved by your response. I am convinced there is more than enough suffering to go around. Those of us who experience early discrimination and hurt are gifted. We are also harmed. I have spent considerable time over the past twenty years working with scores of adults who were harmed in a religiously governed orphanage; recently I was asked by the new owners of the property to help them work with the troubled spirits of that place, child and adult alike. The wounding done in the name of the Creator was immense. The human propensity to label and exclude, rule and punish, is profoundly troubling.

      Reading your note I am left wishing things had been different for you. I am also grateful you have become the person you are.


  3. Michael … I barely know where to begin. This piece is incredible. I could never say those words: “wounded healer” in connection with myself … until this very moment. And, I have you to thank for that. And frankly, that I am saying them now is rather shocking to me. Why could I not say them? For clearly if one is wounded they have not reached perfection and perhaps never will.

    Growing up, perfection was the only thing worthy of a pleasant word, otherwise all hell broke out. And the fear that was instilled within was indescribable. I raced with the Mid-Vermont Ski Council for Bromley Mountain. I raced down “The National” at Stowe as a 12 and 13 year old. I loathed every minute of it and never did well (I was not competitive). Although, I loved the hot maple sugar packed in snow at the end of the run. I was thrilled when I was sent away to school at 13 years of age (though terribly lonely) in Dobbsferry, New York where I simply could not ski or race. I discovered several years ago that my sister was very angry and still resentful at having been sent away to school at that age for she was competitive and did well in all sports until she had to stop. I grew up with the understanding that there were two places: “first and last.” And of course child was pitted against child – that is what competition does. Today I chuckle and tell people that I used to race against Susie Chaffee. If they are my age they usually know of whom I speak.

    Then in the summer it started all over again with fox hunting and 3-day trials. I was really lucky in that caring for my horse or “horsemanship” as it was known gave my life a whole new dimension that skis did not. And my horse was a terrific jumper – which did not hurt. I truly loved him.

    That life lead to one big mistake after another. After a dreadful 1st marriage and divorce, I knew I needed to change radically! I had no money and made no money so I could get no assistance from a professional. And I was not formally educated having been kicked out of college. It was at this time that my spirit was opened and true change came into my life. It was at this time that I took a hold of my life. One of the keys to that experience was becoming celibate for five years. That was at the time an unusual move for a young woman of the sixties.

    As a result of your essay – I now understand precisely and I can actually articulate why I went into the HIV/AIDS field of work in its early years and why I was successful. Doing that work was the greatest gift I have been given except for perhaps my life partner. And even as I did this work, my poor mother and father could not bring themselves to utter the words AIDS and found the work that I did to be ghastly.

    This beautiful essay of yours is a very great gift to me – thank you so much. Gee, wish we could sit down over a cup of coffee!


    1. Raven, Maybe a Skype? Thank you. I am so very glad this essay was helpful to you. I try to remind myself our parents were usually caring for us in the manner they were cared for. So much suffering is multigenerational. At some point the wave crests and change becomes possible for us and future generations.

      A considerably younger friend was a dancer in the eighties and buried over 200 friends. She tells wonderful, heartbreaking stories about AIDS/HIV. She, like you was transformed by the epidemic, and by the many people she cared for. She also says she was blessed.

      Did your parents ever come to understand?


  4. A well pondered piece, Michael, thank you; I look forward to the second part. When I hear the phrase The Wounded Healer, I think of Henri Nouwen’s book. My personal stories of perfectionism and wounding are myriad, so I won’t go into that. Our Western ways seem to operate on the currency of power rather than love. Moving off that grid is an act of great courage. May we take up that call and face the East together!


  5. Michael: Again you have touched the subject of our perceived abilities/disabilities very deeply. As an elder, and someone who has struggled with various mental and physical disabilities, I have come to see more and more of the disabilities as “gifts.” Struggling with them and seeing beyond the ways they have tended to define my identity, I have come to see that the very “struggle” with them has come in time to connect me with “source” and, hopefully, a growing capacity to see that I/we are much “larger” than the things that have come to define us. I really appreciate your perspective presented here, especially the way, with help from others, we come to see ourselves as larger than the boxes we and other people tend to put us in.


    1. Rob, I find myself again struggling with my own understanding of who I am. Seems as though every time I begin to settle into a sense of being healed, another layer peels, and more suffering comes to the surface. Still, as you say, there seems to be less struggle and more compassion in here. And yes, we do appear to be a great deal alrger than we imagine; I try to remind myself of that.


  6. Michael, no my parents never did understand. But that is way OK. They were both so deeply affected by WWII that the war literally shaped them. Both were in England, my father as an Ordnance Officer with the Mighty 8th. My mother worked for the OWI (Office of War Information (US)) in London during the bombing of London. I totally get them and it is all totally OK. Although I am still searching for info about my mother while in the OWI.


  7. Michael, this is perhaps the most important post I have read and speaks to me so clearly. My experience echoes so many of the other comments. Raised in a strict Irish-Catholic family, I always felt I could never meet those expectations, so what better to do than try harder and enter the convent!? 28 years later I figured out that, instead of making me more loving as that lifestyle is supposed to do, I was becoming angry and damaged due to my inability to reach the high benchmark that was the expectation. In a nutshell, it fed into that need to be perfect. I wish I could say that I’m over that dis-ease but, like your polio, the aftereffects still manifest so easily and are perhaps as crippling in a non-physical manner as they are for you and others who had to go through that. There is so much wisdom in your tradition. Thank you for bring this to us. It’s been years since I read Nouwen’s book. And too long since I walked the wheel. I don’t know where to find that opportunity here. Can someone do it by proxy?


    1. Victoria, I am glad my writing spoke to you. We have a lot of company in the wounded healers’ club.
      There are folks pretty much everywhere who know the wheel. That said, they can be difficult to find. I’d be glad to talk with you about it.


  8. While watching the Olympics (what I did watch), I too noticed the focus being on the winners and saw that when the favorites “failed” to come in first that microphones were thrust in their faces to ask the inane question, “What do you think went wrong?” Yes, I understand that it is a competition but honestly every single athlete that makes it to the Olympics should get some kind of medal just for being there…now wouldn’t that be nice.

    That the Para-Olympics aren’t televised is truly sad. Those particular athletes represent so much to disabled folks and to witness what they have accomplished would be priceless.

    On a much more profound and personal level your essay touched me deeply. To learn of your struggles growing up with severe ravages of polio but expected to be as normal as possible…and better yet be invisible and stay “under the radar” was disturbingly sad. I placed myself under that radar with a heaping helping of shame while growing up with a narcissistic, alcoholic father. Back in the 50s issues like that weren’t openly discussed. A pretense of perfection and that all was well through appearances was how our culture thrived. I was a big fan of all those TV shows that portrayed perfect families with the mom’s and dad’s being always gentle and understanding to their children. And all the children had their own rooms…and a real bed to sleep in…not the living room couch or an old rattan settee on the porch. Yes, that inner child still hurts at times.

    But I did find my voice as I got older and I also gathered some understanding and compassion together for both parents who were so limited in their parenting skills.

    I had not heard of the Wounded Healer and am so intrigued by it. Makes me want to follow through on my interest in studying reiki.

    Thank you for sharing such a personal and sensitive write, Michael. I came to The Bardo Group this morning looking for something to inspire me and here I was led.



  9. Bravo, bravo and bravo again, Michael. This is such an important essay in learning about human frailty, from which no-one on earth is immune … because even perfect bodies can become sick and weak and die; even the wealthiest people on earth can come face to face with this and their own mortality.

    Your Line: “The television sages convey the message to us that illness, poverty, loneliness, and all other forms of suffering are moral failures. They do not speak this directly, rather they hold up their carefully managed perfection as a mirror to our human frailties.” Is an almost perfect – and I use that word carefully qualified – summary of our media led malaise.

    Dominant cultures rise, but they also fall. Obsession with celebrity and success, and I mean that version of success that is measured only by money, have become – not to put too dramatic a spin on this – a cancer in the Western world as well as in the new and rising economies.

    Thank you so much for sharing this vital piece with us.


  10. P.S. Having read and commented on Michael’s article, I have now read all the comments. I am so utterly … impressed isn’t a strong enough word, but almost overwhelmed by the well considered, experienced, insightful and articulate patronage of the Bardo. It is a positive source of light and enlightenment. I for one am both pleased and proud to be a part of this life enhancing, dare I say life changing process. Jamie, you have started something special here.


Kindly phrased comments welcome here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.