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Change of heart

Justine Fedak | Ramzi Dreessen~Sun-Times Splash

Justine Fedak | Ramzi Dreessen~Sun-Times Splash

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Updated: July 28, 2013 7:32PM

Passionate people can be scary. They laugh with abandon. They’re unapologetically open. They share things about themselves without reservation. They’re authentic. I think their joie de vivre makes us uneasy.

Though passionate people have always surrounded me, I’d never really considered myself to be one.

I found myself thinking about this on a plane recently. I had just gone through the TSA pre-check and had a conversation with the TSA agent at the desk about my MS. I had my metal cane and, as usual, dropped it onto the ground as I reached for my I.D. It made a loud and very noticeable sound. When this happens, people tend to stare.

I’ve developed a friendly smile to mask the incessant awkwardness that I feel when this happens. And it often spurs me to begin a conversation about MS. Part of me wants to mention it to see if people know what it is. I actually think more people do now than they used to, and that makes me happy, as it’s a frustrating journey — so it’s very helpful when empathy is offered.

It turns out that this particular TSA agent actually knew someone with the disease, and shared a positive story about her friend’s happy demeanor, despite being rather disabled and in her late 60s. We smiled and connected. I could tell that she was an accidental expert on MS, yet she seemed shocked that I had the disease. Why? I’m not sure. But after I’d cleared security, she re-appeared and thanked me for the exchange that we’d had.

We began to talk further. I told her about a local newspaper article that had been in the paper that day, citing a woman with MS who was planning to run for five days to raise money for research and, ultimately, a cure. I mentioned I’d saved the story, and was planning to contact the woman and donate to her cause. The TSA agent suddenly wanted to do that as well.

Our enthusiasm grew as we continued to chat, and a few other agents joined our conversation. We decided that the whole group of us — myself and the TSA agents — could all donate together. Small amounts, but with big hearts.

On the plane ride following the conversation, I realized that by sharing something real and authentic with this person, I’d created a connection that felt passionate. And I realized that I had wasted many years believing that the passion I needed was inside someone else, meant to be shared with me. I had been looking for transference, expecting that someone would inject that passion into me and I would be complete.

But I realized that deep down, it’s up to us to make ourselves happy. To simply be ourselves every day. We decide whether we’re going to smile or frown. Laugh or get angry. Celebrate or retreat.

They might seem scary at first, but passionate people are everywhere you look. You can’t avoid them. Recently, I took a long, hard look at myself and found my passion: raising awareness about MS by sharing my story. What’s yours?

Justine Fedak is being honored at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s “Women on the Move” Luncheon Aug. 19. Tickets are available at

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