Riding Tandem Toward a Flourishing Life

Two men meet and become friends. They get along so well that they end up working together. Each man has his talents, each his difficulties, but together they make a great team. This, of course, is not an unusual story. In fact, it’s so common that it hardly seems worth telling.

But sometimes the story is so unique—and so instructive—that it merits our attention. Indeed, sometimes the story encapsulates what it means to be a human being. The friendship and working relationship of Eli Bowen and Charles Tripp is just such a story.

Arms and Legs

Eli Bowen was born in northern Ohio in 1844. From the waist up, he looked like an average guy, probably one who could hold his own at the gym. A deep chest. Nicely biceped arms. The kind of guy you’d want at your side in a fistfight. But from the waist down, he was anything but average. He was born with a rare defect known as phocomelia, in which his undeveloped feet were attached to his hips. He had no legs.

Eleven years after Eli was born, another boy came into the world. Charles Tripp was born in Ontario in 1855. Unlike Eli, from the waist down, Charles looked like a normal guy. Two legs, two feet. But he was different physically from the average person in one way: he was born with no arms. From an early age, he learned to use his feet for virtually everything most of us use our hands to do: everything from combing his hair to writing to shaving.

Both Eli and Charles supported themselves and their family by performing in the circus. Later, they met and became friends and coworkers. Their unique partnership was captured in an unforgettable photo. There sits Charles on the back of a tandem bicycle, his feet on the pedals, ready to get them moving. And there sits Eli on the front of the bicycle, his hands on the handlebars, ready to steer.

armless-and-legless-men-riding-tandem-1890s.jpg

To me, what’s especially memorable about this performance is that it’s so ordinary. They’re not on the trapeze. They’re on a bicycle. Going for a ride. Looking like they’re just having a good time, doing what friends might do, acting as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world.

@@Two men, each strong and capable and talented in one area, and also lacking in another area, were able to do together what neither was able to do alone.@@

Created to Need Others

This black-and-white photograph, taken in the l890’s, perfectly captures in a single image what it means to flourish as a human being in an imperfect world. We may not be challenged by any physical disability, but all of us are lacking in one way or another. And our impairments are the very reason God pairs us with others. In those pairings, in those dependent relationships, we learn that we not only need others, but are in fact created to need others.

The very first “not good” of this world was a man alone. It was not good for Adam to be an isolated individual. He needed someone to help him, to be by his side, for without that other person he couldn’t be the man that God had created him to be. Alone, Adam couldn’t guard and keep the garden. He couldn’t have children. He couldn’t subdue the earth. He was impaired by his very isolation. He may have seemed like the perfect individual, but he wasn’t. To truly flourish in the world, he needed another person alongside him.

Our American ethos trumpets the ideal of the rugged individual who doesn’t need anyone else. But that’s not only a lie; it’s also the recipe for disaster. In our working lives, our social lives, our religious and political lives, we will never be the people God wants us to be if we pretend that we can be and do everything on our own. We need friends, coworkers, families, and churches—and they need us. We flourish not in isolation but unity.

On that bicycle, Eli was the arms of Charles as Charles was the legs of Eli. The image reminds me of the picture that Paul gives us of the body of Christ. Some of us are the eyes, some the feet, some the hands, others the ears. The ear cannot say to the eye, “I don’t need you.” Nor can the hands say to the feet, “We don’t need you.” All the parts of the body work best when all the parts of the body know and acknowledge their dependence on all the other parts of the body.

The older I get, the more I’m thankful for my impairments, my shortcomings, my deficiencies, all the areas of my life where I can’t make it on my own. I’m thankful for these because, what I lack, God supplies in other people. And those other people are truly God’s gifts to me. Together, we can ride that tandem bicycle, we can be the church, we can be friends and coworkers who complete each other.

The Father has so arranged the world, and redeemed it in Christ, to make each of us deficient in and of ourselves, and sufficient in and of others. Thank God for what we lack, for in what is lacking, we will learn not only humility, but love for the person through whom the Lord supplies our need.