I was walking to the gym last week when a gentlemen rolled up to me at a stoplight. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked. “Could you give me a hand getting up to the curb here?” He had a curly gray beard, owl glasses and a sleek black wheelchair with a bookbag slung over the back. The wheelchair ramp onto the sidewalk was a little rougher than usual: not insurmountable, but you’d want a bigger head of steam than you might be able to work up in a Boston intersection. “Sure,” I said, getting behind him and pushing him three feet. “Thanks,” he said, and rolled off.
That transaction could not have gone any better for either of us. I was the first person he asked (unless he’d been sitting there for a few minutes) and he wasn’t hard to move. I didn’t fumble or shove him; he didn’t feel the need to thank me profusely. Any potential awkwardness that might come from asking a stranger for help evaporated, like snow under sunlight. He asked me for a favor that cost me nothing to give; I gave it and moved on.
There might be something deeply neurotic about a healthy man in his late 20s worrying about how he’d get around were he in a wheelchair*. Then again, a significant portion of the people in wheelchairs today were once healthy and walking; it’s not impossible that I might join their ranks. Daniel Gilbert, in Stumbling On Happiness, recounts surveys in which people suggest that becoming blind or paralyzed or scarred would shatter their lives with tragedy. And yet, blind, paralyzed and scarred people are generally about as happy as the rest of us. Happiness has less to do with the nutshell you’re bound in than in what you call yourself while there.
After doing my good deed for the day, I continued to the gym, where I spent ten minutes on the stairclimber.
* Actually, the deeply neurotic part is the guy who can walk wondering how his day is affected by the guy who can’t