Sunday, May 29, 2011

"I was sad, for I had no shoes" -- Distorted views through the Pity Lens.

From The Gulistan of Sa'di (1258 C.E. -- Persia):

Chapter 3: On the Excellence of Contentment:


Story 19

I never lamented about the vicissitudes of time or complained of the turns of fortune except on the occasion when I was barefooted and unable to procure slippers. But when I entered the great mosque of Kufah with a sore heart and beheld a man without feet I offered thanks to the bounty of God, consoled myself for my want of shoes and recited:

'A roast fowl is to the sight of a satiated man
Less valuable than a blade of fresh grass on the table
And to him who has no means nor power
A burnt turnip is a roasted fowl.'



Every time I hear, or come across, some variation of: "I was sad, for I had no shoes..." I cannot help but imagine the same vignette from the other side. So here is my attempt at a response:


As I sat in the great masque of Kufah, I lamented that I had no feet, and had to rely on companions and strangers to carry me whither I needed to go. But as I sat in prayer, I beheld a man enter walking who was poor, and had no slippers, and whose feet were blue from cold, and bruised by the hard stones of his path. And I offered thanks to the bounty of God that I had companions and strangers to carry me, and that I could fold the ends of my robes around the stubs of my legs, and thus keep warm and comfortable.


The biggest problem with viewing disability from the outside, of course, is that it is far too easy to view everything through the filter of pity. The person who is expressing the pity may think they're giving comfort. But it's a cold, heavy, wet blanket to the person on the receiving end. When Society at Large just assumes your life is devoid of value, then you are denied opportunities to contribute anything of value to Society at Large.

Most of the images of disablity that will come up in this blog will, as in this example, be viewed from "the outside" -- from the able-bodied perspective. This is, in large part, because those with physical disabilities have had far less access to education or to the means to tell their own stories. This has just started to change in the last few generations, but we still have a long way to go.

And, of course, when the creators of these pitying or horrifying images also happen to be generally wise or skilled in their art, everything they've passed down to us is accepted as a Great Truth... Even when it's not. So I've learned to see even the skewed, "monstrous" images of disability as evidence of, if nothing else, the long survival of disabled people in a world that is unfriendly to their existence. And from that, I take great hope.

When discussing the Wisdom, or the Foolishness, of others, my mother often reminded me to: "Consider the source." And unattributed translations make me antsy. So -- here are the sources for my source, as best as I can figure:

I'm quoting the Gulistan posted at The Internet Classics Archive, where the translator is listed as "anonymous." Their source is the Project Gutenberg ebook Persian Literature, comprising: The Sháh Námeh the Rubiyát the Divan and the Gulistan (in two volumes), Revised Edition, 1909. According to Wikipedia, the Gulistan was translated into English several times, starting with "Selections" in 1774 by Stephen Sullivan. The two English translations closest to the 1909 publication of Persian Literature were done by Sir Edwin Arnold in 1899, and Laucelot Alfred Cramer-Byng in 1905, so my best guess is that the words you've read here came from either one of them.


  1. I could not resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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  2. Oh paradigm shift - how you illuminate that which was shielded. It truly is in the eyes / mind of the beholder. Compassion for those who are too hardened to see, prayers for them as well. Your mother - as we are so endowed to be - was right. Consider the source; let not your precious heart be troubled. Our obstacles may be God's stepping stones for us to rise to a height that we would never have attained had we not experienced "the lack of feet." Some will never see the silver clouds even when they live up in them. You are so blessed dear one and so am I for reading your commentary. Thank you. Mary Mallory - artist