Story of true courage is an inspiration
MIND MOVES: Adventurer faces battle to recover from fall
I MET Mark Pollock only once. But his opening words at the event I attended have echoed in my mind many times since: “It was only when I lost my sight completely that I began to look at myself and see who I really was.”
His contribution was laced with humour and he spoke with a quiet self-confidence. He struck me as a man who had looked very honestly at who he was and made peace with what he had found.
The RTÉ documentary last week on his record-breaking expedition to Antarctica, Blind Man Walking , brought him alive again for me. There he was, as calm as I could remember him and with that same beguiling smile.
Ten years before, at age 22, he had been afraid to step outside his home, having recently woken to the trauma of the total loss of his sight. Now we saw him prepare in the most disciplined and exhausting way to step onto terrain that was as hostile as it was bone-numblingly cold.
I normally have mixed feelings about people who push themselves way beyond their comfort zone. I may eventually yield to a begrudging respect for their achievements, but rarely do I feel any real kinship with them.
But there was something different about Mark’s story, a kind of simplicity and humility in the way he told it that drew me in and held my attention. His presence throughout the saga was unencumbered by ego or any need to impress.
I wanted him to make it. I recognised that his ordeal was a deeply personal matter. He was doing this to give expression to a part of his soul that wanted to rise above his blindness and not be defined by it.
I felt profound admiration for the way he endured the icy cold and utter exhaustion that had killed many fine men before him. But what stayed with me afterwards was the look of peace on his face when he was on his way back home.
His ordeal had revealed to him some precious truths to share with the world. It had given him a voice to speak about adventure with renewed conviction. He now embodied a depth of courage and inner strength that would guide others to access these undercharged qualities in themselves.
But just as this hero’s adventure was ending, another was about to begin. A footnote in the credits mentioned in the most understated way that Mark had fallen through a glass door from a 25-foot height to the ground beneath and sustained spinal fractures. This man who had revelled in being able to walk where no blind man had walked before, now lay immobilised in a hospital bed in the UK.
I wanted to write him a letter. I wanted to say thank you. To wish him a full recovery no matter how long it took. To tell him we miss him and that we want him to come home.
I imagine there are days when he must feel that hero of Antarctica has upped and left town. I thought of a few lines from the poet David White that might be of some help.
When he was a young vigorous man trekking through the Himalayas, David reached a huge chasm where there was only the flimsiest and most precarious of bridges linking two ledges. The hero who had got him there could go no further. He sat down in defeat. And then an old woman appeared bent over from the weight of a basket of yak dung she was carrying. She bowed to him as she passed and skipped across the bridge. He followed.
“One day the hero sits down,
afraid to take another step,
and the old interior angel
limps slowly in
with her no-nonsense
and her old secret
and goes ahead.
Sometimes it’s only when the part we think of as the hero “sits down” that a gentler wiser warrior can emerge.
We are thinking of you Mark. It baffles the hell out of all of us that life could be this cruel to you, maybe because we are blind and we are afraid. May you find within yourself an indestructible interior angel to carry you across this terrain and this darkness.
Tony Bates is founding director of Headstrong a The National Centre for Youth Mental Health (firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.