A large part of how we know ourselves is in relationship to the places we inhabit and the way in which we inhabit them.  

Our Spaces

We shape our homes and places of work.  When we change them - move to another town - remodel - empty out - our lives change.  When our spaces are destroyed, we grieve. We have lost a part of ourselves that we struggle to understand and recapture.

Our spaces are repositories of things that represent the chapters of our lives: the books on the shelves, Aunt Mary's teacup, the music we have chosen, the award we won, the clothes we wear, the files of information on our clients.  Each object has some meaning and makes a statement about how we choose to be, even if it only it represents the decision to buy the package of socks at the discount clothing store rather than the department store, or the other way around.  We surround ourselves with reflections of ourselves and the stories of our lives.

The spaces we inhabit and each thing within them hold our extended sense of self.  But we not only shape our spaces, our spaces shape us and influence our sense of who we are.  We live in relationship with the spaces we create.  All relationships are by definition two-sided and provide a forum within which we come to know and direct ourselves.

Here's a simple example:  I live among trees.  The sight, sound and smell of the trees relax me, slow my busyness, reduce my blood pressure and quiet my mind.   These are immediate and direct impacts of the place I inhabit.   Here's another. The house is old and has a lot of windows that are not tightly sealed.  In relationship to the house I learn how quickly my body feels cold. To live in the house comfortably I need to dress warmly and, as a consequence, my wardrobe tends to sweatshirts, wool and fleece.  I experience myself in layers.

We are in physical dialogue with our spaces in every moment.  We are challenged by and limited by them and also enabled by them.   When I engage with a place I learn what I can and cannot do.  Can I easily climb stairs?  Can I reach the items on the top shelves of the cabinets?  Can I walk from one room to another?  If not, does my wheelchair fit through the doors?  Can I get in and out of the shower? 

Before I was injured there were some things I could not do in relationship to the house.  I did not have the dexterity to patch the roof or clean the gutters.  I did not have the strength to move the really heavy objects, like the washing machine, but for the most part I was not focused on how my movements through the space and my engagement with it shaped my sense of my own abilities.  I generally didn't think about it.

Then I was injured. Facing a space we have known intimately after an injury is a powerful teaching.  Suddenly the space that was comfortable and to which we had adapted becomes a barrier.  There may be lots of things we can no longer do.  Facing our limitations we begin to see how our physical engagement with the space shapes how we know ourselves, our interactions with the world, and our expectations of who we can be.

Staircases

I used to think of myself as graceful - moving lightly in the world.  That's the image I held of myself and that's how I carried myself.  My interaction with my spaces shaped this.  I could easily dance down the stairs, stopping, changing position, turning back - all fluidly and seemingly effortlessly.   The sense of that gracefulness permeated the way I talked, the way I engaged with other people.  I was fast, moving from one thing to another with speed, delighting in my dexterity.  And perhaps at that speed I was not paying as much attention to my impact on other people as I might have paid.

Now, post injury, I am not so graceful.   Going down stairs is a focused, careful adventure.  I have to think about what I am doing.  Stopping in the middle to turn around is not a very practical idea.    Does this affect the way I experience myself?  Yes. I am more aware, more careful, more patient with the way I move.  This in turn affects my interactions with other people.  I am more focused, more careful, more patient, and more accepting of the people I engage with.  I am grateful for this teaching from my spaces.  It has deepened my relationships and made me more effective.

I recently met a wise man who told me that a person is not inherently disabled, that he only experiences himself as disabled when he interacts with a world around him that contains barriers.  It is the relationship to the physical environment that creates either the experience of empowerment or the experience of disability.  When we shape our environments so that everyone can engage with them with a sense of accomplishment, we change not only access but literally change the way people know and think about themselves.

About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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