The victimhood paradox

Published On:
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
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You may have seen him while studying outside on campus. His name is Greg. He is on the team of disabled people who empties the ashtrays and the trash around campus. He has served the student body and faculty since 1992.

Despite his physical and mental disabilities, Greg comes to work with joy each day. You may have heard him sing while you sat outside at a picnic table. But as Greg himself says: “I never sing while I work . . . only after work.”

David, a personal friend of mine, is a young 17-year-old who was born to a woman who never saw a doctor throughout her pregnancy and was so high on drugs that she delivered on her kitchen floor. 

According to his adopted mom, David has been diagnosed with a slew of what should be crippling conditions: spina bifida, hydrocephalus (water on the brain), atrial septal defect (heart problems), fetal alcohol syndrome, reactive attachment disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Nonetheless, this has not hindered David’s life. He competes in archery and wheelchair racing and loves to play chess, checkers and cards.

Known worldwide, Nick Vujicic was born to proud parents in Australia in 1982. His parents were so excited to welcome him into the world. But when he was born, his little body was without limbs. Having overcome a childhood of loneliness, bullying and self-esteem struggles, Nick now tells how he realized that these “bad” things only made him stronger. At the age of 27, Nick has two bachelor’s degrees in financial planning and accounting and now travels as a motivational speaker. He even swims, fishes and plays soccer.

Greg, David and Nick are only a few examples of people with physical limitations who currently live an abundant and joyful life because they recognized the victim attitude as their enemy.

Why is it, then, that so many of the same people who tell Greg, David, Nick and others like them that they shouldn’t have a victim’s attitude, are just as determined to convince those of us who endure socio-economic difficulties or are members of a minority that we should feel sorry for ourselves — and that society has done us wrong?

Pulling people into victimhood is a specialty of candidates and politicians. They create or highlight a particular problem and then promise to rescue voters from this very problem. How can we maintain our freedom if we count on someone else to solve our problems? Choosing to be a victim means choosing to be weak.

To be strong, as Greg, David and Nick have proven, is overcoming one’s trials. It is in hard times that we turn our weaknesses into strengths.

The difficulties we are born either with or into are what make us who we are. Being coddled by our comfy couch while we feel sorry for ourselves seems all but indefensible when people with mental disabilities or without limbs are out singing, competing in archery contests and giving inspirational talks.

I am honored to meet people like Greg, to call David my friend and to hear of people like Nick. They inspire me, reminding me, among other things, that we are not entitled to a life of ease and comfort.

Life is strenuous, as Theodore Roosevelt preached. As a sickly child stricken with asthma, Roosevelt overcame his weakness and later, as commander in chief, urged the nation to “boldly face the life of strife” because, he said, while “it is hard to fail … it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”

Reach Catherine at catherine.e.smith@asu.edu.