My earliest memory of hearing the question was during first grade.
I don’t remember the context exactly, but it might have been while I was walking to lunch or playing foursquare. Or maybe I was asked while I was waiting for the school bus or while running in the large grassy playground.
I was asked the question throughout my childhood years but I was not able to perceive the difference that prompted the question. For years, I would look in the full-length mirrors of shoe stores, or I would look at my reflection in storefront windows lining the mall or sidewalk.
Copyright: auremar / 123RF
What was it that these other kids saw that I could not see? Nevertheless, I learned to answer the question with indifference. “There is nothing wrong. It’s just the way I walk,” I would respond.
Though I couldn’t see myself through other’s eyes, I also couldn’t ignore the impact of my physical disability. Cerebral palsy affects my left side. It impacts dexterity, fine muscle movement, balance, and walking.
But, on the playground, cerebral palsy means being last. I learned to lean on the fence many, many times as my friends picked better athletes for playground teams ahead of me—until I was the last pick. I swam miles and miles of laps on my high school swim team and improved my swim times. But I never won a single race. I was last in every heat of every race that I ever swam.
Growth was my enemy. As my body grew, my tendons and muscles contracted, making walking increasingly difficult.
My father’s Air Force medical coverage afforded me the best medical intervention. I adapted to a two-year seasonal rhythm of corrective surgery, recovery, decline, and surgery again.
My first surgery was at age five. Between the ages of five and seventeen, I had 7 surgeries. My longest hospital stay at age fourteen was more than a month, during which I was pinned to the bed in traction. My hospital bed was along a row of fifty other beds filled with survivors of the Vietnam War. Men who had lost limbs from mortar or mine explosions adopted me as a sort of mascot. They would push me in wheelchair races. They would tell me stories filled with colorful language. We would play cards until lights out.
My life experience has been one of adapting to changes that impact my ability to maintain balance. My normal has always meant both walking and falling. I have had spectacular falls: down stairs, face plants on busy London streets, backwards on snow-covered slopes, and two sequential tumbles into a family Christmas tree.
I had assumed that my normal couldn’t change, but it turns out God could still surprise me.
When I read the story about Jesus’ encounter at the beautiful gate, I identify with the paralytic asking to be helped to the pool.
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (John 5:6-8, ESV)
Like me, this man had adapted to his baseline. But his encounter with Jesus introduced the unexpected. He was made well. Even after many years, God can disrupt and surprise us.
After a recent injury, I attended some physical therapy sessions. My expectation was to strengthen an injured area, but the therapist did the unexpected. She said, “Let’s learn how to walk.” I thought, Hmm, I have been doing this walking thing for sixty years…
But as she began working with me, I was shocked to experience a positive change in my gait. In sixty-plus years and countless physical therapy sessions and doctors’ appointments, no one had ever focused on improving my gait. Why is that? Mind blown.
I had resigned myself to thinking that the best I could do was not lose ground. Folks with disabilities struggle with many things, but none of us do well with decline of function. We react to decline with a mixture of anger, depression, resentment, perseverance, and survival. It can extinguish hope that forward movement can still happen.
My new way of walking requires exceptional focus to create new muscle memory. I must train myself to a new balance point. It’s much easier to walk the way I used to because my brain and muscle strength are adapted to that.
I am still learning. I am walking slower and have yet to run, but I am falling less and my strength is increasing.
My new experience with walking has infused hope into my journey with God. I am beginning to understand that even the most rigid, inflexible circumstances can benefit from the knowledge and intention that God has for me.
My walk with God is becoming new as I embrace the hope that encourages me to look forward.
Michael Dunn became a Christian in 1975 during the sweet spot of the Jesus movement. His career has been in high tech, including tenures at Apple, Netscape, AOL, Palm, and a few startups. He and his wife, Kathy, raised four children and are learning to be grandparents. They currently live in Santa Cruz.
In previous years, Michael was involved with several church plants in San Francisco and Austin. In 2015, Michael completed a masters from the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary. He still works in high tech but is starting to work out his focus for this next season. Presently he is interested in serving boomers. He attended The River from 2012 to 2017.