The pursuit of potential has become the focal point for many a modern achiever. In a world where we can always do a little better, when asked ‘Have you reached your full potential?’ the answer is always ‘No.’ There is always room to be happier, healthier, fitter, and more successful. Potential, by it’s definition, suggests something which we have not yet realised.
And yet sometimes we glimpse it. We see a person who for, however brief a time, meets their potential and embodies it. They catch the perfect wave and, in that moment, there is no better form of themselves. ZIDILIFE recently interviewed Dave Jacka – a man who broke his neck in a motorcycle accident at the age of 19, leaving him quadriplegic with just 6% physical function.
“I remember waking up beside the motorbike and I knew I had a really big problem. I couldn’t breathe. I’m laying there and I couldn’t feel anything, at all. I knew I’d done something serious but I didn’t know what. It transpired I had broken my neck which is why my body felt like it had totally shut down.”
For some like Dave, disease or disaster can put the ideal of potential forever out of reach. The very potential they had is often diminished, as survival takes over as the primary concern.
“They told me I was a quadriplegic but I had no idea what that meant really. As in I knew vaguely what it entailed, but you can’t begin to imagine day to day what that means.”
Whether right or wrong, it can be natural to lower our expectations of what someone in Dave’s position may do with their lives after such an accident. It would be easy to forgive them for resenting their new circumstances, and to expect their quality of life to remain diminished.
“In my mind, I had my life planned out. I was going to start a business, travel, learn to fly, and do lots of things. I was like any other 19 year old – I had loads of dreams. But suddenly, you have this accident and the dreams and the plans are gone. You don’t know what your future is going to look like.”
Many of us, in the absence of a tragedy such as Dave’s, are taught to go beyond our life’s circumstances, to change the play somehow. With the advent of the personal development or self-help industries, there have never been more ways with which to change our approach to life’s conditions. We can often be left with a sense that we are unfulfilled somehow, as we are constantly chasing the higher, idealised version of ourselves. But what if your circumstances can’t change? What if the conditions of our life are outside of our control, and we have to make the best of what we have? In Dave Jacka’s case, the acceptance of his life’s condition is the very quality that has led him to realising his potential.
“Do I hope? No, I don’t. Look, if a cure came around one day, fantastic. But I certainly don’t live in hope. To me it’s about doing as much as you can with what you have. I think when you lose so much, you appreciate what you do have.”
For those without disability it can be hard to fathom someone like Dave feeling fulfilled as a quadriplegic. At best, perhaps he has a positive attitude to get through his existence – surely he isn’t truly happy? But as we look further into his story, and the things he has since achieved, we see it is not merely attitude that makes Dave’s happiness so profound. By fully accepting the conditions he could not change, Dave has gone on to pragmatically adapt every other condition of his environment around him, that is within his control.
During the first eight years after the accident, Dave had to relearn everything physical – along with adaptations for his quadriplegia. From finding ways to feed himself, picking things up, and eventually driving, Dave was determined to live the best he could. He was then given the chance to play Wheelchair Rugby at the Paralympics.
“Early on, you don’t know what the future is going to be like. It’s just about taking one small step at a time. I had no idea I would be at the Games one day, it was a fantastic experience. Competing against the best in the world – whether you win or lose in the end didn’t really matter. It’s about being there, participating and doing something that very few people have the opportunity to do – I feel very privileged to have competed for my country. It’s so rewarding and the overall experience is something that I’ll never forget.”
But this was not the end of Dave’s achievements. One of his goals as a child was to learn how to fly. While there are many things in the world that have been made accessible for those with disabilities, flying a plane is not one of them. But why not? Why not adapt the environment around you to work with your own set of skills and abilities? We are so used to thinking that the way things are is the way they will always be, and that we are the ones who need to adapt. But what if you’re not prepared to compromise your dream, and your circumstances can’t be changed? Do you give up, or find a way? For Dave Jacka the answer was very clear – he would find a way to fly. Not only did he do that, but recently he went on to fly solo around Australia.
“One of the things you come up against when you are a quadriplegic is people’s perceptions of you, and people’s attitudes of those guys who are confined to a chair. How do I actually do it? Well, basically I converted an aircraft so I can fly with a disability. I have a tube in my mouth that I suck and blow to control the speed of the engine. In my left hand, I have the rudder – I push or pull on that to keep the plane straight. And I control the roll and pitch of the plane using my right hand. It sounds complicated and it takes a little bit of practice but it soon becomes second nature. The difficulty wasn’t flying, it was trying to persuade people to let me fly and to change people’s preconceptions.”
Dave Jacka is the first quadriplegic to fly around Australia, and he will be the first to kayak down the famous Murray River. But here is where his disability begins to disappear – his achievement would be impressive for anyone, disabled or not. The fact Dave has only 6% physical function makes the feat incredible, but his attitude and his perseverance is something that anyone can take on – but many won’t.
Was Dave Jacka always destined to do incredible things with his life and develop the character he has now? Would he have been able to without his accident? Is it fortunate or unfortunate that many of us will never become the kind of person Dave has become, because we won’t have to face the challenges that he has had to face? While it may seem almost poor taste to consider Dave’s accident a gift, the fact remains that without it he would not have been able to become the person he is today. Who we are transcends the physical, and Dave has undoubtedly become both an inspiration and a reminder to all of us that, disabled or not, we can choose to do more with our lives, regardless of our circumstances.
“I don’t regret my accident. One thing I know is that I have no idea what my life was going to be like had I not had my accident – it could have been wonderful, or it could have been crap. I don’t have any regrets. It is what it is. Everyone has challenges. Everyone, even able bodied people, have great challenges. Everyone deals with these challenges in their lives in their own way, but for me it’s about utilising what you’ve got and doing the best with that. Most people have no idea what they are capable of.”
To read the full Dave Jacka interview, Click Here.