A Lesson About Differences And Change

On this year’s FREEDOM TOUR I learned a lot about different.

You might think that’s odd, that a guy who’s lived in a wheelchair for 28 years shouldn’t need to learn about different. You might think that after all those years of navigating a world mostly designed for able-bodied folks I’d have a pretty good handle on the notion of different.

I thought so, too. I thought I was pretty sensitive to differences. Until Kent showed up and I realized I had a lot to learn.

Kent rides a recumbent cycle. He can ride all day but recumbents, because of their design, can’t keep pace with traditional bikes when climbing hills.

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We’ve always operated with these principles:

  • We ride as a team.
  • No one gets left behind.
  • Nobody rides alone.

Kent’s presence highlighted the fact that I was enforcing some unwritten rules as well, rules designed to keep everyone together and enforce more conformity than anyone really intended. I was not-so-subtly forcing everyone to ride at about the same pace, despite varying abilities and comfort levels.

This mostly worked on previous tours, though in retrospect I can see it caused some minor conflicts that got swept under the rug. When everyone rode traditional bikes, there wasn’t enough variability to bring this issue into focus. Kent and his cool recumbent were an outlier that finally forced us to take an honest look at how we ride together as a team.

I learned I feared allowing for differences.

Yeah, the guy in the wheelchair, the guy who goes through life being different, the guy who rides a handcycle, wanted everyone to be the same. I feared the consequences of allowing folks to ride at their own pace.

I had great intentions, of course. I loved the notion of a team moving down the road together, supporting one another in a spirit of unity. I formed this picture in my mind and I forgot.

I forgot that unity isn’t the same thing as uniformity.

By enforcing a false uniformity I was actually creating small conflicts that might have chipped away at the edges of genuine unity. Turns out that the best way to achieve authentic unity is to empower folks and turn them loose to use their unique gifts and talents in pursuit of a common goal.

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You know the most ironic aspect of this silly fear? By forcing uniformity, I artificially limited how many miles I could ride during the tour. Since I couldn’t keep up on a lot of the terrain I rode in the car rather than cycling.

How crazy is that? Rather than cycling at my own pace I either exhausted myself trying to keep up or I didn’t ride at all. And somehow that made sense.

I don’t want to make this sound like a horrible, awful thing or like I’m beating myself up over it.

We all have things that need to change. Sometimes we see the necessary change, sometimes we need someone like Kent to bring it into focus. What’s important is when you become aware, be open, listen, and don’t be defensive or take it personally.

We’ve already discussed ways we can do this better going forward. We’ll do better, I think, at riding as a team without forcing unneeded uniformity.

More important…I hope we’ll do a little better at spotting our blind spots (can you spot spots?). I hope when we find them we’ll address them openly.

That’s how we get better.

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