I glanced out the window again of the Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft at 30,000 feet. I was trying to relax while thumbing through the airline’s in-flight magazine that had this photo of Anthony. My wife Becky and I were on our way to stay with our son and his family in Southern California. I had a four-day convention to attend in Anaheim. During those days, Becky would visit with our son, his lovely wife, and our 11-month-old grandson.
At the convention, I was surprised that one of the keynote speakers was another wrestler with a disability—except he wasn’t missing just one leg; he was missing four limbs. Kyle Maynard was born with short stubs for arms and legs. For his speech, he rolled onto the stage in a wheelchair (No battery-operated motorized wheelchair for him!), let himself down on the floor, crawled on the floor with four stub limbs, and finally climbed up and sat on a regular chair to deliver his speech.
He spoke of how his parents taught him that he could do anything. He believed them. He was determined that he would not be defined by his disability. He would not feel or think like a victim. He said to himself, “I'm not going to allow other people to decide what I am capable of."
He wanted to be a wrester and began when he was eleven. For his first year and a half, he did not win a match. His parents wouldn’t allow him to quit. He lifted weights, conditioned himself, and studied technique. He went on to be ranked in the top twelve high school wrestlers in the country.
I was immensely taken back by him. After his speech, I stood in a line in an adjacent hallway of the large meeting room to personally meet him. As I waited, I noticed that between meeting people, he was balancing back on two wheels in his wheelchair. Perhaps this was a nervous habit kind of like how I bite my fingernails.
Someone asked him to sign a book. How could he do that? He had no fingers? He pressed a pen between the ends of his two stub arms and scribbled a note and his signature as smoothly and gracefully as I’ve seen anyone. When it was my one-on-one turn, I told him how much I appreciated his message. I asked for a photo with him, and he willingly agreed.
Since returning with Becky back to our home in the Salt Lake Valley, I’ve thought a lot about my experience with Kyle. Being a former wrestler, I had to see one of his matches. One was posted on YouTube. He really had been a successful wrestler!
I thought about the lessons I learned. Determination, never quitting, and always resisting the feeling that I am a victim were a few. I thought a lot about how Kyle described his interactions with his parents. Their positive influence on him was very profound. They’ve had a huge impact on his self-esteem and determination. Despite his disability, they believed he could do just about anything.
I view my situation growing up as quite different from Kyle’s. My father and my stepmother (my mother died when I was ten) were good people who accomplished a lot to make the world a better place. They set wonderful examples for me of integrity and goodness. My father occasionally expressed to all my siblings at the dinner table how proud he was of us.
However, in my one-on-one interactions with my father and second mother, I felt like they often subtly put me down and questioned my abilities and potential. When I did something wrong, my father waved his finger at me and made me feel that I did wrong because I was a bad person. My stepmother kicked me and made belittling comments to me.
After watching me pitch my first Little League baseball game, my father commented on how my throws were too predictable and not varied enough. No encouragement; just criticism. I was disheartened and, as I recall, never pitched another game that year.
Later, he once told me that he thought I’d make a good house painter for a career—the only job I recall that he ever suggested I consider pursuing. Now, I have great admiration for house painters—I worked summers during junior high and high school for two of them whom I greatly admire. However, all my older siblings had attended college, and those were always my desires. I felt that my dad was questioning my intellect.
Later, I read a transcript where he once told an interviewer about me when I was in my thirties, “Now our son Owen is not creative.” He said that I had an “engineering/accounting type mind,” that I was an introvert, and that I was well fitted in my profession, that I had done “extremely well” in.
While I appreciate that he acknowledged that I had done well in my career, I question why he said I was not creative. It seems that he was pigeonholing me rather than say something like I could do anything I set my mind to.
I feel that the words and influence of my father and second mother majorly contributor to my issues with low self-esteem. Over several years, my psychotherapist repeatedly focused on my relationship with my parents, and tried to persuade me to not believe the many negative messages I felt. My major breakthroughs seemed to come when I was able to do this.
Now, why am I relating these ruminations about my parents? Am I feeling like a victim? Am I feeling sorry for myself, and want others to feel sorry for me, too? I think not. I want to make a couple of points.
First, parents have an extremely big impact on the self-esteem of their children, and it’s important for them to realize this and take their responsibility very seriously. Kyle Maynard’s parents are a great and positive example of this.
I don’t believe I did that well in this area with my own children when they were young. As now I feel more enlightened, I’m trying to make up for my past mistakes. Fortunately, Becky is a much better parent, and my children have benefited.
Second, every one of us has at least one major disability we must deal with, though none may be as severe and apparent as Kyle’s. However, it can be just as challenging.
One of mine has been low self-esteem. Whenever I’ve met people, I’ve thought of them as being way up there and me being way down here beneath everyone else. I questioned all of my abilities. This defect in my personality has negatively impacted just about every aspect of my life. It’s had a bearing on my relationships with my family and others, and my ability to succeed in my career.
I’ve long sought to overcome this impairment. I spent years in psychotherapy and spent thousands of dollars. After each session, I carefully made notes about the conversations and what I learned. I reviewed these notes thereafter. I spent a significant amount of time thinking about my issues and how I was addressing them. I read, studied, and analyzed many books about my mental illness issues.
Like Anthony and Kyle, I feel that I have made significant progress in dealing with my disability. I feel much more self-assured and confident than I used to. My wife and children tell me how much I’ve changed. They say I’m more enjoyable to be around. They say they feel much closer to me now. Concerning my career, I’m doing something different than I have ever done that I really enjoy. With this new career I believe I’m having a significant impact on the lives of others—which is extremely important to me. Generally I feel better and am much happier and more content with life.
I’ll never forget Kyle’s assertion: “I am not going to allow other people to decide what I am capable of.” It’s also important that we view our past struggles as learning opportunities. We must avoid bitterness and self pity like a plague. Overcoming disabilities and obstacles make us stronger and better people than we would have been without them.
If there were a wrestling mat and referee for battles with low self-esteem, I feel that my hand would also be raised in triumph!