Opening Words: “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable. If we can conquer outer space we can conquer inner space, too.”
These sentiments from Christopher Reeve explain the title of his second book, Nothing is Impossible.
But more importantly, they summarize a life by which we were inspired—an inspiration that helped to give us the courage to live our own lives by witnessing, close-up, the way he lived his own life, especially following the tragic accident that paralyzed him.
In an ironic twist his paralysis forced an intense focus on work will continue as a legacy—the paralysis foundation; research arm, and helping quadriplegics live a better life.
His legacy, both the memory of a life well-lived, including the adversity, as well as the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, lives on.
His influence helps each of us, I think, by encouraging us to live our own lives in this real down-to-earth world with dignity, courage and the determination to do our little something to make the day better for our having been here.
Several years ago, just before our eleven o’clock Sunday service, one of the ushers came to my office and said, “Christopher Reeve just pulled up to the handicap ramp.”
I had no idea he was coming to church—that was his first visit, so I went out to greet him and the ushers moved some chairs down in the front row to make a space for him to maneuver his chair.
During the next few years Chris and I would become good friends.
I was shocked on that Monday morning last October when I got a call from Chris’s wife, Dana, telling me that he had died; I had just spoken to him a few days before and we were arranging a visit to work out the details for a interview he’d agreed to with the UU World.
We were all shocked, saddened and at least a little more surprised than we should have been.
After all, he had lived for nearly ten years with a major spinal cord injury—two years beyond what was normally expected.
But we expected more because Chris did not seem to fit into any of the normal categories—the actuarial charts were designed for mere mortals.
Christopher Reeve had become a mythic hero figure.
First, he was Superman: he leaped tall buildings with a single bound, he was faster than a speeding bullet; he saved Lois Lane and, single-handed, he rescued a doomed world from destruction. What a hero!
The mythic hero in religion and mythology is extraordinary–an inspiration for ordinary living. The mythic hero figure speaks directly to the heart, not the earth-bound rational mind that holds us down. The mythic hero touches something in us that is generally beyond our capacity to explain or describe; it’s a universal something, deep within.
The mythic hero figure brings hope and courage to the day-to-day, down-to-earth life that we mere mortals are living.
The hero is usually introduced in his or her ordinary world, then moving to the extraordinary—the special world that’s new and alien to the hero.
The hero is presented with a problem or challenge—an adventure ensues. The hero is reluctant, at first; but the hero is encouraged by some wise old man or woman—a mentor.
One of the great ironies is that the Superman character Chris played–the ultimate hero–was eventually overshadowed by the mortal man, the man who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury and became a real-life hero; an inspiration.
We knew that the Superman character couldn’t really fly, but something in us feels too tied to the ground, too limited. Something in us wishes we could fly.Dream analysts like Carl Jung have a lot to say about those flying dreams. (Have you had a flying dream, lately?)
We knew that the on-screen Superman character was not really invulnerable to the bullets that bounced off of him, but something in us feels so vulnerable to the bombs and bullets, to the diseases (like the flu) that we love the mythological character who is invulnerable—the hero. We wish we weren’t so vulnerable.
In one of the most ironic twists of fate Christopher Reeve sustained an injury on Memorial Day weekend in 1995, during an equestrian competition, while approaching a rather routine jump. Chris was thrown to the ground and broke his spinal cord very high up, completely paralyzing him. He was kept alive by a ventilator that did his breathing for him.
When he regained consciousness a few days after the injury he was told that he had a 50/50 chance to survive the surgery to re-attach his head to his spinal column. He was told that he would never walk again.
His initial response drove him into the depths—he had to go there, on his own. He called into question the very idea of continuing to live under those conditions. Before he could use his voice again, he mouthed words to Dana: “Maybe we should just let me go.”
We’re reminded of the Biblical character, Job, who endured so many losses until he finally said he wanted to die—and his wife agreed. “Why don’t you just curse God and die,” she said to him.
Chris had to enter those depths and to look into the heart of that ultimate question, the one posed by Hamlet:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune;
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them: to die, to sleep
No more: and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep…”
Albert Camu put it this way: “There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games. One must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.”
As soon as he regained consciousness Chris confronted this basic philosophical problem head-on: to be, or not to be.
Unlike Job’s wife, Chris’s wife, Dana, listened, she let him know that she heard what he was saying—how he was feeling, and she asked him to give it just two years. If, at the end of that time, he chose to end it, she would support his decision.
She said, “You’re still you, and I love you.” He said that those words became a pivotal moment for him. He wrote a book titled, Still Me, in which he talked about the feelings that came out of those depths, and the remarkable transition that he experienced.
The great irony is that it was only after the accident that he acquired the status of a living, human hero, in the sense that he became an inspiration for living.
That’s what a true hero is: an inspiration; a spiritual guide, if you will; a motivation—a call to action.
Chris’s arms and legs were no longer working, but his mind was working overtime. He gained a new kind of consciousness. “I have never been disabled in my dreams,” he said.
So Chris moved from the extraordinary world of the movie star celebrity playing the ultimate hero character, to an ordinary man in a wheel chair.
He was presented with a problem, a challenge. He was reluctant, at first, telling Dana, “Maybe we should just let me go.”
He was encouraged by a wise, loving wife who convinced him to ‘give it a year.’
So Chris entered his new, special, challenging world. This is the hero’s journey. He indicated his commitment to the journey by saying, “I will walk again.”
He encountered tests and helpers, and he encountered (as all heroes must) obstacles and enemies.
One day I took Bill Sinkford to Chris’s house to meet him and talk about Chris doing the interview for UUWorld. We got talking about stem-cell research and Bill said something like, “Well, I have nothing against the Christian right,” and Chris said, “Well I do!” Then he launched into a spontaneous and powerful sermon about why he was a Unitarian—how I wish I had a tape recorder playing for those few minutes.
Chris talked about Bill Frist and the others who were working against stem-cell research. Heroes must encounter obstacles and enemies. They must face the possibility of death, and they have to ‘seize the sword,’ take up the cause.
Joseph Campbell says, “Sometimes the ‘sword’ is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces.”
Chris was careful about his public statements about the religious right—he had been invited to the Oval Office on several occasions, and he didn’t want to put that in jeopardy.
The hero in literature is resurrected, or transformed by his experience—taken out of his ordinary life into a new life, an adventure that changes him forever. He returns to the ordinary world with some kind of treasure that will benefit the world. Chris believed that stem cells hold that potential.
The hero figure gains a new kind of consciousness that takes him out of the confines of a very limited self. The individual self is transcended and a new kind of consciousness emerges which causes him to spend the rest of his life working to help people with all kinds of disabilities.
Senator Tom Harkin summarized it nicely in his eulogy on Friday afternoon at Chris’s remarkable memorial service. Harkin said that Chris turned his wheel chair into a bully pulpit—a pulpit on wheels.
I smiled to myself, thinking about the pulpit I occupy in Westport—the only other pulpit I know of that’s on wheels! The pulpit at the Unitarian Church in Westport was donated by Norman Cousins, in memory of Albert Schweitzer. Like Chris Reeve, Norman Cousins demonstrated the same kind of determination to live in the face of a debilitating illness.
“…a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example.” Do you know a better example than Chris Reeve?
We use the word hero very loosely in our culture. Sometimes it’s even used by politicians for personal gain, calling someone you sent into the line of fire a hero because he was killed doing what you told him to do. The word hero is used instead of the more appropriate word: victim.
The word ‘hero’ is sometimes used by clergy to promote their particular brand of religion. The word ‘hero’ is used by those who want to encourage young men and women to go to war—everyone who dies in war is called a hero by those who sent them to die.
The word hero was used to describe the victims of 9/11.
We sometimes confuse celebrities with heroes. The celebrity is a famous person whose persona is created in movies or sports and so forth.
Chris Reeve carried the celebrity, movie-star persona with a smile; but he became deadly serious about his task as a quadriplegic; deadly serious about the need to open the doors for scientists to find a cure for spinal cord injuries, to find cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, and lots of other deadly diseases the cure for which millions of people are waiting for us to discover.
Chris saw the possibilities of stem-cell research, but in a more general sense he saw the possibilities in our ability to get over the idea that it’s not possible; he saw the possibilities of science, which simply means our ability to think things through, to figure things out, and not to be prevented from thinking by those with limited vision, those who can be blinded by a kind of idolatry that imposes some worn-out notions about what God wants and in a strange theological twist prevents us from becoming what we’re capable of becoming!
That’s why Chris titled his second book, Nothing is Impossible.
Dana let Chris know that she heard what he was saying in his initial response to paralysis. She did not deny the depths of his pain—that would only isolate him all the more, frustrate him all the more. She promised that she would help him to let go of this world—to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil,’ if he would just give two years to the transition process his paralysis required.
He agreed, and in a lot less than two years he made that transition—which turned out to be a transformation of heroic proportions, beyond the myth to the man—the real, down-to-earth mortal man. That’s when Chris became a real hero.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote about the myths we live by, who understood the depth of the concept of hero, said, “The hero is a man of self-achieved submission.”
(Note: A footnote to the word hero in my American Heritage Dictionary says: ‘Many writers now consider hero, long restricted to men in the sense of ‘a person noted for courageous action,’ to be a gender-neutral term. It is used to refer to admired women as well as men in respected publications. The word heroine is still useful, however, in referring to the principal female character of a fictional work’.)
(It’s also interesting to note that in Greek mythology the priestess of Aphrodite is a woman named Hero.)
In mythology the hero figure first survives a crisis by which he or she moves to a higher spiritual plane and willingly takes up the new work that is required of him or her.
There is a heroic quality to each of our lives; we must survive the various crises, the changes and challenges that confront us. Chris reminded us, by his living, that heroism is a built-in fact of life for every one of us. A myth, remember, is a truth story: a good myth is about you and me—it’s the truth about living life.
The first step in the journey of the hero is to withdraw, to detach from the ordinary day-to-day life. We all have to do it—it’s the inner journey, the inner life—it’s about that thing we loosely call our religious life, or our spiritual life.
Take the well-known legend of the Buddha: he leaves the sheltered life in his father’s castle, where he was protected from even seeing illness, poverty, old age and death.
The journey of the Buddha is meant to be the universal story of a every one of us, using as a hero figure the young prince who adventures boldly out of his father’s castle—he leaves the safety of the known.
Siddhartha sees a beggar for the first time—he learns about poverty. He sees a man who is ill and another who is bent over with old age and another who has died along the road—he learns about illness and death.
He’s knocked off his feet; he wants to understand what it all means; he eventually withdraws by sitting under the Bo tree for forty days until he receives enlightenment—a new kind of consciousness–he breaks through the limits of his former, day-to-day mindset. He sees something deeper. He gets it!
This is pure mythology. It describes the inward journey we all take when we leave the old comfort zone; limited consciousness.
The hero motif can be found in all the mythologies. It’s the story of Adam and Eve being evicted from the Garden—the paradise they lost. It’s the story of Noah weathering the forty-day storm.
It’s the story of Moses who was raised in the Pharaoh’s home, protected from the realities of slave labor—he was even protected from his own Hebrew identity, raised as an Egyptian. Then the crisis occurs and he has to withdraw from Egypt, only to return after his encounter with the burning bush.
It’s the story of Jesus who withdrew into the desert for forty days.
It’s your story, when you ‘get it.’ It’s my story, when I ‘get it,’ and certainly it’s the story of Christopher Reeve who faced a terrifying crisis that transformed his life, forcing him to rise above the limitations of his injury by attaining the self-achieved submission to which Campbell referred.
Submission is a word with some spiritual connotations, too. It has to do with the humility that exalts: who humbles himself will be exalted. It can sound like giving up, especially to those of us who put such emphasis on self-reliance. But there needs to be a balance, and submission can be a word that conveys a kind of heroic acceptance of what is, rather than wishing things weren’t really the way they truly are.
Chris said, “I will walk again!”
It’s tempting to say that he failed to live up to that prediction. But it wasn’t really a prediction about some future event—it was, I came to realize, a statement about the attitude he acquired when he emerged from the depths into which he had been plunged by his paralysis.
“I will walk again,” is an indication of an attitude we all need to have–a positive attitude we have to have when we’re thrown from whatever horse we’ve been riding—a determination to face the adversities life delivers.
Again, Shakespeare said it: “Sweet are the uses of adversity!” (As You Like It)
Never was there a sweeter use of an adversity than the one we witnessed in Christopher Reeve.
The horse-riding accident resulted in a radical transfer of emphasis from the external world, the world in which Chris Reeve had such success by the world’s standards, into the internal world. His very survival depended on it, and so does yours, and so does mine.
At his memorial service Robert Kennedy, Jr. said that Chris was not a religious man, in the traditional sense, but he was the ‘most spiritual man I’ve ever known.’
That was the place where I met Christopher Reeve: the deep spiritual place, the internal world, and in another strange twist it was there that Chris Reeve ministered to me more than I could possibly minister to him; but I realize that it’s always a two-way street. We traveled a portion of it together, and for that journey I will be forever grateful.
I heard many a sermon from his pulpit on wheels—sermons that inspired me to continue my own work, my own life, in my own way; sermons he gave to people I took to meet him in his home, and sermons I learned about that he gave in the oval office and in the Senate chambers, and in the halls of Congress.
I marveled at the way Chris adjusted, maintaining his role as father and husband; expanding and deepening his role as friend and mentor.
Chris came to the Unitarian Church to find support for the inner journey—his own journey.
I was taken by surprise when I first saw him in the courtyard as he operated his wheelchair with his mouth. My first response was to simply introduce myself, to welcome him as I hope to be able to do with any new person, and then to give him whatever room he needs.
After he and Dana had been attending for a while, it became clear that it was time for a visit in his home.
I’ll never forget the first time he and I sat together for more than two hours; it didn’t take long for me to forget that he was in a wheel chair; he was one of the brightest, best-informed, alert, sensitive and caring men I’ve ever met.
He smiled quickly, easily and frequently.
He told me about his life and asked me about mine—the external part; and he talked with me about his internal life, and asked me about mine.
He told me that he had flown a plane, solo, across the Atlantic, twice. He told me about his sailing days.
At the first memorial service at his home, in the yard he loved to look at through his office window, I recited the John Masefield poem:
Sea-Fever, John Masefield
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, and a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; and all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying, and the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life. To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; and all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover, and quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”
When I brought Dave and Pam Driscoll, who bid on the ‘tea with Chris and Dana’ at a fund-raiser for our ABC (A Better Chance) house, he talked at length about films on which he was working, including The Brooke Ellison story, which he completed just days before he died; and he talked about his first attempt at an animated film about baseball. We spent 2 ½ hours with him that day.
When a friend of one of our members suffered a serious spinal cord injury in an accident on route 95, I asked Chris to call the young man, which he did, but only after learning some details that would help him to make what he referred to as ‘a support call.’ He made many of those calls.
In some very real and effective ways, Chris took on the role of a combination of a minister and therapist. He was good at it because it came so naturally to him. His bully pulpit on wheels was also a pastoral-ministry chair.
Chris was only 52 years old when he died on October 10; but he lived a rich, full life, influencing so many.
He was an inspiration…a real life hero.
I was honored to participate in his remarkable, inspirational life, and to conduct two memorial services, one at his home with close family and friends, and the other at Julliard. The Julliard memorial was the most powerful service I’ve witnessed, or am likely to ever see again.
Speakers included his twelve-year old son Will, and his wife, Dana; his older son, Matthew—whose memorial film was shown; and his daughter Alexandra, who is a student at Yale.
Some of his nurses and care takers spoke; Tom Harkins thanked Chris for helping him keep his seat in the U. S. Senate; other friends spoke: Robert Kennedy; Glenn Close; Meryl Streep and his dear friend Robin Williams; the caste from The Lion King sang Circle of Life.
Robin Williams concluded his moving tribute with a poem from E. E. Cummings:
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
For my closing words I used Carl Sandburg’s perfect little poem, Stars, Songs and Faces:
Gather the stars if you wish it so
Gather the songs and keep them
Gather the faces of women (and men).
Gather for keeping years and years.
Loosen your hands, let go and say good-by.
Let the stars and songs go.
Let the faces and years go.
Loosen your hands and say good-by