Coping with Paralysis: 'If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame'

Part 4: 'Women Aren't Afraid of Fragility'

Photo Gallery: Hitting the Reset Button on Life Photos
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Koch: Being in society is a life-saving measure for us. That's why it's so important that people are not afraid of us and actually like to approach us. Hugging and kissing, for example, keeps us alive. But we have to create the conditions for that ourselves. In the hospital, I was told that there were now three possibilities for my development. First, I could let myself go completely, lose all interest, see nothing but suffering, isolate myself and eventually become lonely. The second option looked like this: The need to constantly communicate everything could easily lead to my dictating things to others, which would eventually turn me into a tyrant, and that too would ultimately lead to loneliness. The third possibility sounded the most appealing: You accept yourself as you are, and you become happy as a result.

We take a break. The two men eat a snack. Koch switches his wheelchair to the prone position for a short time so that he can relax. Now Pozzo di Borgo's second wife Khadiya, who he met in Morocco nine years ago, enters the room. Wijdane, the couple's biological child, jumps around the room with her long pigtails, climbs up onto the wheel of her father's wheelchair, hugs him and cuddles with him. Later on, she climbs up into Koch's wheelchair and kisses him on the cheek. The little five-year-old girl displays the uninhibited approach to paralytics that both men would like to see in others.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, in your book, you describe at length the important role physical closeness, desire and sex played in your life. How has that been since your accident?

Pozzo di Borgo: Unfortunately the accident makes you lose your sexuality. The first thing they offered me in the hospital after my accident was a talk with a sex therapist. Today they've cut budgets, and the first position they've eliminated in that of sex therapist. But the sudden loss of sexuality is a big problem for those involved. It's a completely banal neurological consequence of the accident that you lose this world of emotion and experiences. I had the great fortune to be married to women who came to terms with the loss of my sexuality. Women already have a great advantage, in that they have more reason and sense than men. They're more adaptable.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, how did you cope with this loss of sexuality?

Koch: Even before the accident, I had made a deal with myself to concentrate only on my future wife and to avoid all possible -- or impossible -- liaisons, so that I could conservatively, or naïvely, wait for the right one. The accident helps me a little more with that resolution.

Pozzo di Borgo: How sensible! Fantastic!

SPIEGEL: Hardly anyone can rhapsodize more enthusiastically about women than you, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo. You say, for example: "The magic of a woman soothes me," or "Thanks to women, I survived." What is it about women that makes you so enthusiastic?

Pozzo di Borgo: Women aren't as afraid of fragility. They're not afraid when they see me. They're completely natural.

SPIEGEL: You describe yourself before the accident as greedy, egoistic and ambitious. Do you regret today that you were like that?

Pozzo di Borgo: Good question. If I had known what would happen, I would have behaved differently. But there's so much noise in our society, so much movement, that you usually don't even see reality. I often say that I would like to return to the world of the healthy and of business, but under one condition: that I can return with my baggage as a disabled person.

SPIEGEL: You, Mr. Koch, write about Samuel, when he was healthy: "I was quite an asshole for a while." What do you regret?

Koch: "Je ne regrette rien," although I'm not proud of everything, either. But of course I've had a lot of time to reflect since the accident, and would certainly do a few things differently today. But I wouldn't say that someone who has suffered such a stroke of fate necessarily becomes a deeper person. Someone in rehab said to me: "He who was an asshole before the accident is still an asshole after the accident."

Pozzo di Borgo: Very good!

SPIEGEL: You say that you recognized the harshness of the system as a result of your accident. What exactly do you mean?

Pozzo di Borgo: We are in an achievement-oriented society, and I was one of the high achievers. But the standards have become so high that many people capitulate and are sidelined. There are fewer and fewer people who are still in the system, and more and more who are forced to the edges. The financial crisis, which was really just a logical consequence of all this absurdity, has accelerated this development. People suffer from neuroses, they've become introverted, they are no longer able to cope, and they become excluded or feel excluded. Mankind has lost the meaning of life.

SPIEGEL: Has your view of our society changed, Mr. Koch?

Koch: I've suddenly gained insight into areas that I had no idea about before. I now know what still needs to be improved, even in such a model social welfare state as Germany, not to mention other countries. It would take us less than a day's journey to end up in places where Philippe and I wouldn't have survived after our accidents.

SPIEGEL: Is it fair to say that you've gone from being a big capitalist to a critic of capitalism?

Pozzo di Borgo: I was always suspicious of capitalism, especially financial capitalism, which destroys values. The champagne company I managed was very German in some ways. All employees were involved, unions were represented on the supervisory board and employees had a lot of say. But when we were bought out by a financial investor, he decided that all profits would go into his pocket from then on. The first thing he told me to do was to lay off half of my employees. I had my accident shortly after that.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe there's a connection?

Pozzo di Borgo: Absolutely. I was very distracted during my fateful flight, and I wasn't myself, partly because I sensed that I didn't want to be part of that sort of a system anymore.

Koch: Even before the accident, I had decided not to pursue a sensible profession with the prospect of making a lot of money. Money and power were not among my ideals, because both are so fleeting. The accident only reinforced my beliefs.

SPIEGEL: We live in a nervous time where things move faster and faster. Does this pace exclude you, the people who move at a slower pace?

Koch: Perhaps it's more that we represent the counterweight on the scale and help slow things down. But I don't really feel excluded. I'm here in Munich today, and I was in Berlin the day before yesterday. But I think it's also important to pause sometimes and come to rest -- which I probably only discovered because I had to.

SPIEGEL: You resumed your studies at the University of Music, Drama and Media in Hanover in April. What have your first experiences been like?

Koch: The university has opened up new perspectives for me, ones that I hadn't anticipated. It's affiliated with the Institute of Journalism and Communication, where I'm also allowed to attend lectures. At the moment, it's more of an orientation and even an experiment for all of us, the instructors, my fellow students and me. It's really enjoyable to once again be around the people and in the environment that I had once become so fond of.

SPIEGEL: German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has been in a wheelchair for more than 20 years, and has been in the top echelons of politics that whole time. Is he a role model for other disabled people?

Koch: I think so. I was in the German parliament building recently, where everything is nicely wheelchair-accessible. He's apparently done a lot when it comes to removing barriers, and even with some very pragmatic things. It's also very important that, despite his disability, he doesn't allow himself to be disabled and actively participates in life; not just his own, but also in the lives of 82 million Germans. You can hardly be more active than that.

SPIEGEL: How difficult do you think it is for a wheelchair user to wield the influence that he does?

Koch: It certainly takes a lot of strength, even though Schäuble isn't quite as disabled as the two of us. There is definitely a difference between being a paraplegic and a tetraplegic, like we are. We can't even use our hands in a functional way, which means that we need help with everything. At least Schäuble can eat on his own, write, read books, open a door and scratch his nose. I would be so ecstatic if I had only one hand. I think Philippe feels the same way.

Pozzo di Borgo: I'd be grateful for so much as a finger.

SPIEGEL: Would you like to see more disabled people in leadership positions?

Pozzo di Borgo: It's extremely important for disability to be reflected in everyday life in our society. When you place a wheelchair into a gathering, you create team spirit. The wheelchair creates social cohesion, in politics, in companies, in associations, in the family, wherever. Besides, a disabled person is twice as capable and clever as someone standing on two legs.

Koch: Naturally.

Pozzo di Borgo: If not three times better.

Koch: I heard that the brain of the tetraplegic, like the hearing of a blind person, can develop into a high-performance processor. Where sensitivity is missing, as it is in our bodies, it's simply concentrated somewhere else.

SPIEGEL: What did you learn from your caregiver Abdel, a petty criminal from the suburbs who came to you almost directly from prison?

Pozzo di Borgo: He helped me regain courage and the enjoyment of life, after I became severely depressed following the death of my wife. I, the aristocrat, was exposed to a new world through him, the world of the banlieue, the social hot spots, places where people are marginalized. I wasn't familiar with any of that before. You can't leave these people on the margins of society.

SPIEGEL: Abdel, for his part, says this about you: "Without Pozzo, I would probably be dead or in prison." In capitalism, they'd probably call it a win-win situation.

Pozzo di Borgo: Absolutely. Although I wouldn't be in prison without Abdel, I could very well be dead.

SPIEGEL: How is Abdel today? What's your relationship like?

Pozzo di Borgo: We see each other regularly. He's a businessman now, a successful chicken farmer. He's married, has three children and has gained 30 kilos.

SPIEGEL: Thirty kilos? Then he's doing well.

Pozzo di Borgo: Yes, very well. I'm always so happy to see him again. But he's still crazy.

SPIEGEL: In the film, Philippe says: "The boys from the banlieue have no pity. That's exactly what I want. No pity!" What's the worst thing about pity?

Pozzo di Borgo: Pity doesn't heal. When someone weeps for me, he's actually weeping for himself, and we can't all start weeping. For healthy people, pity is a way of protecting themselves, but it doesn't do me any good.

Koch: Pity doesn't do anyone any good. Compassion is better. I think it's sweet when little children say: "Wow, you really have it good. You never have to eat on your own, you never have to go anywhere and you never have to get dressed yourself. You really have a cushy life. I wish I had that." That's what I like. But there are also those, who are not children, who say: "It's really not all that bad. You're doing well. You're a public figure and you're well known. After all, that's what you wanted!" That, of course, is nonsense and the opposite of compassion. It doesn't lead to productive cooperation.

SPIEGEL: Philippe, you too dream of "cooperation between upright and prone members of the human race," as you write in your autobiography. What is your vision?

Pozzo di Borgo: It can't work if there is too much pressure, and if the demands of our system contradict human nature. It isn't just the physically disabled who fall by the wayside because of the pace of things. Others are also increasingly unable to stand up to the pressure. Now I ask you: What exactly is the logic behind a system that leads to such exclusion? There's a suicidal aspect to it all. We ought to bring people back into the system. If disabled people managed to return a little of that common sense to healthy people, I'd be very happy.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Markus Feldenkirchen

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1. Not to blame?
kewlo 08/05/2012
Wer gelobt wird, weil er so "gut" sei (wenn alles gut geht), sollte ebenfalls kritisiert werden, wenn er (denn schließlich bestimmt er das Geschehen in der Welt, jedenfalls nach manchen Leuten) böses tut. Gelobt werden für das, was gut ist, aber vor Kritik verschont werden, wenn etwas böses passiert, ist kaum objektiv und nur durch Dummheit oder blindes Glauben zu entschuldigen.
2. "If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame"
kewlo 08/05/2012
In that case, he should also not be praised for the good things that happen in this world. Either there's responsibility for good AND bad, or for neither.
3.
Mimi 08/07/2012
Excellent interview Markus. These two gentlemen are inspiring, their courage undaunting, their grace and acceptance of life's unexpected turns is something I shall always remember. Disability is not an identity nor should it diminish a person. Everyone deserves respect and love to some degree.
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