Not a Hero

Periodically during my life with rheumatoid arthritis, people have exclaimed to me: “You’re a hero!” I remember this happening even when I was a young child, limping along with my swollen knees.

Frankly, I just never knew how to handle this kind of comment. I certainly didn’t feel like a hero. I was a regular kid—sometimes good, sometimes cranky. The remark was an exclamation of my ability to cope with the pain and limitations of rheumatoid arthritis. Rarely did I complain and my usual approach was “let’s get on with it”—let me just live life the best way I can.

But sometimes I did feel a little heroic and my superpower was living with chronic pain and joint stiffness. Sometimes it is amazing that I have a happy life despite my illness and all the challenges it brings.

I remember a coworker at a previous job who was a wonderfully warm, compassionate person. Sometimes she would ask me about my illness and my experience living with RA. Tears would come to her eyes, and I felt bad but she would say that my story moved and inspired her. It moved me that my friend was so affected by my experience and that she gained some kind of strength from it. She would call me her hero, but I never truly felt deserving of the title.

For me, heroes are imaginary people—whether they be comic book characters, action stars, or ancient myths. They do amazing things and don’t have real flaws. They don’t give up the good fight and never waver under evil temptations. They are better than human.

While I want to identify as a hero, I just know that I am a regular, flawed human being. I am trying to do my best with the circumstances that I have been given. I strive to be heroic, but have failed too many times to count.

Maybe it’s more accurate to say that I can be a role model. By this I mean that I try to live a good life and show others through my actions that despite chronic RA and the resulting health problems, I can enjoy myself and contribute to my community. In this way I try to give other people hope and encouragement. I also try to be kind and thoughtful of others, knowing that we all have challenges with which we struggle.

With these definitions, while I can never truly be a hero, I can strive to be a role model in the way that I cope with my illness and live my life.

I think sometimes people don’t know how to react or interact with people, like myself, living with a chronic disease or disability. Because my experience seems so foreign to them, they ascribe special powers that I just do not possess. They want to think that I am somehow “more than” in some way that makes it possible for me to live with pain and limitations, because it is hard for them to imagine themselves doing so. However, I am just a person, doing my best.

I also believe that somehow we all must learn to manage the cards we are dealt in life. People learn to do amazing things and cope with their unique situations because they simply must find a way. I cannot give up, therefore I must fight on.

If my example teaches anyone anything, then I want it to be that: we are stronger than we think we are. We can cope and even thrive with painful, challenging experiences. It may not be enjoyable and it may be very hard, but it is possible.

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