Learning To See That No Man is An Island

The poet, John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” As caregivers and persons receiving care, many of us wrestle with the notion that we may become dependent on others. We find ourselves struggling mightily against acknowledging that we need help. But John Donne’s words remind us that perhaps we were never intended to be independent of other people. Choosing to stand alone, come what may, runs counter to the reality of being human.

I find comfort in John Donne’s words. If one person needs assistance then it’s okay for any person to need assistance. The ideal of independence is an illusion. But do I have the luxury of feeling comforted, because I haven’t reached the point where I am dependent on others?

For years as a professional in the field of aging, I have wondered how we make it okay to accept help. How do we make it okay for caregivers to get the help they need over the long run? How do we make it okay for older persons and persons with disabilities to receive assistance? Finally, how do we make it okay for ourselves?

I recently had the privilege of seeing Richard Turner, the self-described “card mechanic” and one of the world’s greatest card trick artists. He performed at a local charity event with amazing card tricks that were invisible to the eye as they were projected on large screen monitors around the room. The 2017 documentary titled “Dealt” follows him for a year as he is nominated for the Close-Up Magician of the Year Award from the Academy of Magical Arts. Interestingly, what Richard Turner might tell you is the least important aspect of his life, and his accomplishments, is that he is completely blind.

Richard Turner has attempted to live his entire life as if he is not blind. That means that he didn’t learn braille, didn’t use a cane or a seeing-eye dog, and relies on family members to support his independence in a manner that makes his blindness almost invisible.

Richard’s younger sister suffers from the same rare eye disease and is also blind. His influence on her was strong growing up, so she lives most of her life without adaptive equipment just like him. The turning point of the story (spoiler alert) comes when she decides to get help, to use a cane and a seeing-eye dog. She then discovers that being willing to let others see that she is blind gives her greater freedom than she has ever experienced.

Richard slowly realizes that he might be placing a greater burden on his wife and son, because he doesn’t accept traditional tools for the blind. His sister becomes a mentor to him, and he too begins to embrace his own blindness.  Like John Donne, Richard discovers that he is not an island separate from his blindness, but that it is a part of him that has always influenced and shaped him – and perhaps even made him the great card magician that he is today.

In the end, I think that Richard gives me the answer for which I have been seeking – an answer that he has taken his entire life to find:  How do we make it okay for ourselves and others to give and accept assistance? Richard states, “Something I’ve learned is to accept your weaknesses and to accept help from others. We all have weaknesses. When you accept that, then you can move on with your life. Believe you are special. You have to love yourself.”

In accepting our weaknesses, we give power to our strengths and to those around us who can help do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Two heads are better than one, and an extra set of hands, eyes, ears and legs may do the trick. With the support we need, we can move our focus to the next thing we wish to accomplish. Perhaps accepting help is really not a trick after all; it’s the magic that changes everything.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and immediate past Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at www.CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491.