Friday, March 11, 2011

Parkinson's Disease and the Constant Call to Courage

A King with a stutter is an unlikely story for a movie. And yet, “The King’s Speech" is a powerful, Oscar-winning lesson to those of us who have a tremour rather than a stammer.

As was discovered by King George VI under the tutelage of Lionel Logue, fear is a powerful enemy. It spawns real disability. Like fascism, which was the free world’s enemy of the King’s day, there are always insurgent agents of fear that must be conquered. Especially for those confronted by an incurable, debilitating disease.

Greg is a salesman and he is good at what he does. But at 51 his recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease has left a myriad of questions. How will his audiences and clients respond to his stiff movements, his shaking hand and arm, and his eroding confidence? How will he handle his new self-image? Having never met before, Greg and I shared a coffee and discussed our common struggle to overcome a declining sense of self-confidence that comes from feeling less acceptable in the fiercely competitive business worlds we serve. For him fear has become a participant in each sales call, a nagging doubt in each negotiation, and uneasiness in each casual interaction.

Like Greg, every time I engage in negotiating a contract, enter a courtroom to argue a case, or stand up to speak in front of an audience, the reality and power of my "disability" leap into my mind. I hear the unspoken questions. I see the quizzical expressions and sidelong glances. They all speak to me in what seems like sneering fear-inducing tones. And then there is the voice that whispers in my ear, seemingly loud enough for all to hear, "What are you doing here? People are wondering what is wrong with you? They see your tremor. They notice that you can no longer write notes, barely scratching out your signature. How can they have confidence in you? How can you have confidence in yourself?" A cold bead of sweat slips down the back of my neck, running down the channel next to my spine. Fear plants a foot inside my gut. Stepping down hard it refuses to yield to my pleas, “Leave me alone! Let me do my job as I have done for 30 years.”

The King, Greg and I have each needed courage. Perhaps all humans do, or will at some point in our lives. Courage is a key to many issues. Not the strutting stuff of movies or front-page news. It is the quiet, unassuming (not self-aggrandizing), inner courage to fight the fearsome demons that would keep us cornered, cowering and useless. But where does courage come from? Where is it stored for use when needed? How can courage raise its voice and shout, "Be gone!", to mounting panic?

For those of us who face the daily challenge of stiffened limbs or an endless tremor, it is not enough to dig down deep into a well for a bucket of bravery from time to time. For us, fear becomes a wave-after-wave attack of apprehension seeking some small crevice through which to crawl into our minds. Courage, for us, must be constantly drawn upon, like an intravenous supply of life-giving liquid.

Courage is a matter of the heart, as the word itself comes from the French word, "couer", which means "heart". A brave and strong heart is not created by some genetic predisposition. It is given its character, its DNA, by the encouragement and affirmation of others. It develops with the discipline and nurture of teachers, parents, friends and those who love. But that is not enough. A brave heart must be tried and tested, like a rope woven from strands contributed by many. Courage, as an act of the will, can overcome its smug and comfort-seeking cousin, cowardice.
For those who live in the land of Parkinson's disease there seems to be a constant call to courage. PD will require a great deal from each of us, perhaps more than we think we have to give. And while this damnable disease may shake our bodies, stoop our backs, stiffen our frames and mask our true expressions, it will not take our hearts if we will  fight with courage.

1 comment:

  1. Bob

    Brilliant! Para 4 is spot on. But I disagree about courage. Like you, people say I have courage. But, to me, courage is about choice and we have no choice. I think we have Fortitude.