[Every year in the United States, there are about 5000 victims of quadriplegia. In 1967 one of those victims was Joni Eareckson, a good looking, athletic girl from a fairly affluent family with Christian Evangelical leanings. Seventeen at the time, she broke her neck in a diving accident, and apart from her shoulders and upper arms she’s been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. Despite becoming America’s most famous quadriplegic through her art—she holds the brush in her mouth—her many books, her activities as a Christian radio host, and her multiple appearances on Larry King, I doubt whether she would take issue with Pliny the Elder (23–75 AD) when he wrote, ‘The enjoyments of this life are not equal to its evils.’ The fact that her religious faith has enabled her to accept her disability, and even, at some level, regard it as a blessing, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t long for the day when she will be delivered from what is, in itself, a dreadful misfortune. In the opinion of the human race, “evil,” though a strong word, is an appropriate substitute for “dreadful misfortune.” Perhaps that opinion is justified because the consequences of dreadful misfortunes tend to be life-long. Enjoyments, by contrast, pass quickly and leave little trace. In the passage below from her book, Joni, 1976, the author vividly sketches some of the pleasures she knew shortly before her accident. But even if every day of one’s life was filled with such pleasures free from the youthful uncertainties and spiritual discouragement described by Eareckson, could one possibly claim that such enjoyment was equal (but opposite) to the evil of quadriplegia?]
I was accepted for the fall term at Western Maryland College on academic recommendations. My life seemed to be falling in place, going somewhere—and yet it wasn’t.
I remember lying in bed one morning shortly after graduation and thinking about all these things. The summer sunlight flooded into my window. Filtered through leaves in the trees outside, it splattered into flickering points of dancing light across my bed and along the pink, rose-print wallpaper. I yawned and rolled over to look outside. When daddy built his dream house, he included these unique touches like the small “porthole” window near the floor beside my bed. I’d just turn over in bed and look down outside.
It was still early but I got up quickly and fished out a pair of Levi’s and a pullover shirt from my dresser. As I dressed, my eyes turned once more to the black leather diploma folder on the dressing table. I ran my fingers over its grain and the embossed Old English lettering of my name and school crest. Just a few days earlier, I had walked down the aisle in cap and gown to receive that diploma.
“Breakfast!” Mom’s voice downstairs punctuated my reverie.
“Coming, mom,” I called. Bounding down the stairs, I pulled a chair up to the table.
“Are you going out to the ranch after church, Joni?” asked mom.
“Uh-huh. I know Tumbleweed’s going to be ready for the summer horse show circuit but I want to spend more time with her, anyway.”
The “ranch” was our family farm some twenty miles west of town. It was situated on a panoramic ridge in the rolling, picturesque river valley and was surrounded by state park land.
By the time I got there, the sun had already climbed high in the sky and the fragrance of new-mown hay was blown toward me. The breeze also caressed the tall wildflowers and grasses of the sloping meadows and gently tossed the uppermost branches in the sweet-smelling apple trees nearby. Humming softly and happily, I saddled Tumbleweed and swung up to mount her.
It was refreshing to be so far away from the dirt, noise and noxious smells of the city. In summer, Baltimore suffers from the industrial air pollution and sweltering humidity that rolls in from Chesapeake Bay. Here, in our own little paradise, we’re free to enjoy the summer sun and air.
I pressed my thighs against Tumbleweed’s sides and nudged her with my heels. The chestnut mare headed up the dusty road at a walk. When we came to the pasture, I dug my heels again. Tumbleweed really didn’t need a second command. She knew there was room to run here without concern for potholes or rocks. Scattered across the field are several log-rail fence jumps. We cantered toward this first jump, a broad, four-foot solid rail fence. As I tightened my knees against Tumbleweed, I felt the smooth, precision strides of the big horse.
The experienced rider instinctively knows the right “feel” of a horse preparing to jump. Tumbleweed was experienced and so was I. We had won all kinds of ribbons and horse show awards. I knew the sound of hoofs—the proper cadence, pounding across the earthen course.
Smoothly, the horse lifted up and over the fence. Suspended for an instant, it was like flying. Nearly ten feet off the ground aboard Tumbleweed, I was exhilarated each time the mare jumped. After several runs, Tumbleweed was wet with sweaty lather.
I reined her to a slow trot and turned back toward the barn.
Looking up, I saw dad astride his gray gelding galloping across the field toward me. Smiling, dad pulled his horse up.
“I saw her jump, Joni. She’s in excellent shape. I think you’ll both run away with the ribbons at next week’s show!”
“Well, if we do, it’ll be because you taught me everything I know about riding,” I reminded dad.
By the time dad and I returned to the barn, unsaddled the horses and slapped them toward the corral, it was 4:30. “We’d better head for home. We don’t want to be late for dinner,” I said.
I recalled the pleasure of the previous perfect day, riding on my horse Tumbleweed under a beautiful summer sky. But inwardly I knew it was an elaborate form of escape. I didn’t want to face the real issues. I wondered—“Lord, what am I going to do? I’m happy and content, grateful for the good things You supply—but deep down, I know something is wrong. I think I’m at the place where I need You to really work in my life.”
As I traced my spiritual progress over the last couple years, I realized I had not come far. Jason and I had broken up, true; and Dick was better for me in that regard. But I was still enslaved. Instead of “sins of the flesh,” I was trapped by my “sins of the emotions”—anger, jealousy, resentment, and possessiveness. I had drifted through my last years of school. My grades dropped and, as a result, I began to fight with my parents. I lacked goals or the motivation to do well. It was obvious to me that I had not made much spiritual progress in the two years I’d been a Christian. It seemed no matter how hard I tried to improve, I was always a slave of my desires.
Now I was insistent with God, “Lord, if You’re really there, do something in my life that will change me and turn me around. You know how weak I was with Jason. You know how possessive and jealous I am with Dick. I’m sick of the hypocrisy! I want You to work in my life for real. I don’t know how—I don’t even know, at this point, if You can. But I’m begging You—please do something in my life to turn it around!”
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