As a quadriplegic, Christopher Reeve demonstrated heroic powers.
There was always a poignant irony in the fact that someone famed for portraying a man with superhuman strength became, in a tragic instant, utterly dependent on others for his every need. But it's even more strikingly ironic that Christopher Reeve's most formidable accomplishments, what he will undoubtedly be remembered for above all else, came after he became a quadriplegic. An important and timely message, that, for a world that seems, increasingly, to define life in terms of agility.
Mr. Reeve, the actor who played Superman in a movie 25 years ago, worked tirelessly for nearly a decade on behalf of the disabled before he died on October 10. He educated the public, raised tens of millions of dollars for medical research, wrote two books and inspired millions -- including disabled Israeli children on a trip he made last year -- with his example.
It's hard to imagine that his life would have been fuller had he remained the avid skier, sailor, pilot, scuba diver and equestrian he was before he was thrown from a horse in 1995 and broke two vertebrae in his neck. More active, yes; but fuller, no.
To be sure, Mr. Reeve's accident left him setting radically different goals for physical accomplishment, like learning to operate his wheelchair by puffing into a tube. But that's precisely the point: physical movement was no longer how he assessed achievement. His accident had forced him to realize that life's meaning isn't measured in miles, nautical, air or otherwise.
While he always maintained hope that physical rehabilitation and scientific advances might one day allow him to again move his limbs, he did not consider even that modest desideratum to define his worth. Asked in an interview mere weeks before his death what would happen if in fact he never walked again, he responded straightforwardly "Then I won't walk again." Walking, he was clearly saying, would be wonderful, but it isn't life.
And yet, in the immediate wake of his accident, he had felt so hopeless that he had seriously contemplated suicide. There seemed so little possibility that he might live a meaningful life that even his own mother, as Mr. Reeve recounted in his 1998 memoir, urged doctors to remove him from equipment keeping him alive.
Confronted with what he chose to perceive as a new reality and new challenges, Mr. Reeve decided that a broken neck needn't yield a broken will.
Such a reaction, in the throes of shock and fear, is not beyond comprehension. But it is deeply misguided all the same. Like many an emotional reflex, it came with time to yield to something more reasoned and sublime. Confronted with what he chose to perceive as a new reality and new challenges, Mr. Reeve decided that a broken neck needn't yield a broken will.
The thought is an urgent one these days, when the willingness to consider lives unworthy because they lack the "quality" that comes with physical dexterity (or mental acuity, or natural freedom from pain) is unfortunately on the upswing.
There are, unfortunately, many suffering people in the world, and they -- or others -- may feel that life in a state of illness, dejection or despair is simply not worth the trouble. But when Christopher Reeve found himself in a hospital bed, paralyzed and despairing, he chose to live, and to accomplish.
And even if as public and active a life as Mr. Reeve's after his accident seems, well, superhuman, we would all do well to recognize that meaning resides in many different places, and -- more important still -- that every one of us, in the end, has super powers.
What else to call the ability to think, to pray, to resolve, to regret, to love, to forgive? Not one of which aptitudes requires good health or physical movement.
No one likes to contemplate his or her final moments in this world. But the rabbis of the Talmud taught that, especially faced with the temptation to do something wrong, it is a most important thing to do. And it's unlikely that any of us who take that wise advice would picture ourselves focused in extremis on ski slopes or regattas. What will matter as we prepare to take our leave will be things considerably less physical.
Which is why Judaism teaches that every moment of life, no matter its "quality," is infinitely precious. Would that more of us recognized, and internalized, that truth.