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New Plateaus: Moving past disability, man provides a lesson for others

Holding a paintbrush between his toes, an armless man paints black Chinese characters on bright red paper to sell on the street in Zhuhai, China.

Chances are, reader, you've got two arms and two legs and are an overall able-bodied individual. Yet how apt we are to focus on the aches and pains of our bodies rather than basking in the capabilities of our physique.

It seems there's a need to relearn and maintain these lessons of gratitude and to rejuvenate our inspiration -- all of which dwindle without tending. It's like having to say "I love you." It doesn't cut it when Mr. Smith says of Mrs. Smith, "What?! I already told her that I loved her once. Why does she keep forgetting?"

Perhaps we do "forget" or just simply "run out" of emotional fuel and need a recharge. Perhaps a healthy outlook on life, like a healthy body, isn't something attained, but maintained.

For some maintenance, here's a story of a man in China who got my perspective to flip. Rather than focusing on what I lack, I was inspired to recognize all that I can offer.

I was walking my neighborhood blocks in Zhuhai when I happened upon a small crowd on a corner. Like so many of life's finds, this one occurred right out of the blue.

Through the crowd of about 25, I made out the centerpiece: a thin man of about 35, dressed in a white tank top and dark slacks, was standing over a half-dozen large, spread-out red sheets of paper. Oversized Chinese characters were artistically and neatly drawn on the sheets in black ink. He was evidently the artist. The impressive part was that these "handwritten" characters were created by someone without arms!

"Holy cow!" I thought, taken aback. I'd never seen an amputee so revealed. Maybe he was trying to play up his handicap for more cash; maybe it was lack of shame. But there he was with armless shoulders and scar tissue. Lord knows how he lost his arms.

My immediate thoughts went to, "What would it be like to have no arms? How horrible life would be!" Crazy how automatic these thoughts are. I'd like to say it was a form of sympathy, but it wasn't. It was pure dread -- dread of having to stare life in the face without arms. How easy it is to confuse sympathy with dread! It makes sense, then, that my next motive was to stomp out this fear by thinking, "Quick, where can I give him money?!"

But hold on there, cowboy.

This wasn't a man looking for something for nothing, though he absolutely could have. He wanted to earn; he wanted to create; he wanted to do. And the money he did receive was compensation for something he offered to others. Soon, my eyes drifted down to the appendages still remaining on his narrow frame.

The whole process was fascinating to watch. He nudged his seat pad into place with his foot and hunched down upon it. Though many people were watching, none helped. This guy was fine on his own. He clamped the paper to a cardboard backing with his nimble toes, then grabbed the paintbrush between big and second toe, dipped it in the ink can, and went to work. After each few characters he'd have to realign -- stand up, kick his seat over and hunch back down.

For myself, and I'm betting for those who watched, pity quickly turned to admiration, and people gave to him for reasons of the latter. He seemed more a creator with a handicap than a handicapped man who happened to create. He was somber, focused, concentrated.

At some point in his past, this person decided to live rather than simply exist. It's a wonderful place to be when one sees all they are capable of. And it is powerfully evident when one with such a blatant disability has this realization. He's an inspiration for all who experience challenges. He taught me that the human spirit and the drive to express can overcome so much.

The question I have for you, reader, is this: If armlessness can't stop the painter, what's ever stopping all of us from expressing ourselves?

For video of this painter in action, go to my Facebook page, This article is an excerpt from my upcoming book, "New Plateaus in China." For information on it, shoot me an email or stay in touch on the facebook page.

Brandon Ferdig, who spent a year teaching and traveling in China, writes a weekly blog at Email him at