Being different isn’t a problem…until it is

The dreaded doctor’s office lobby. The temperature is either too cold or too hot, but never in between, like the little air conditioning gremlins in the A/C unit want you to be as miserable as possible. I’m pretty sure the little beasts feed on misery. The forty sheets of paperwork you’ve been made to fill out on one of those plastic clipboards advertising some new drug that you’re pretty sure will kill you with its side effects before your illness gets is grips in you alternates between awkwardly resting on your belly or your chest or your knee. You quickly pen out the information asked on the teeny tiny lines that, thanks to that horrible little clip board, has made your scrawl look like a three year old wrote it. Heaven forbid they ask for your insurance information, and the tenuous hold on some semblance of stability you’ve finally found for that clipboard out to destroy you has to be moved so you can grab the insurance card from your wallet. Then there’s the people. Yeah, you’re not the only person suffering in this doctor’s office. You give a quick glance around, curious but sheepish, your mother’s admonishments to you as a child that staring is rude branded into your backside for all eternity. And then you see him, staring at you…blatantly.

His expression a swirling and open canvas of abject horror, speculation, judgement, and maybe behind all that peckish curiosity. He takes a long once over your perpetually curled hands, down the line of our horrible posture and the protruding pouch of your belly earned from years of inactivity. His eyes continue down your legs, taking the alternate route from your belly, becoming thinner than is fashionable, and then moves back and forth, taking in the state of the wheels, chair base, and supports that you sit in. Your mind at once rebels at the rudeness but at the same time makes you feel small and maybe even a little guilty for your own curious looks around the room at the other people. You’re finally called back to your appointment, the man long forgotten in your anxiety and attention focusing on the tests, your doctor, and the office staff. It’s as your leaving, pulling away from the doctor’s office and out of the parking lot, that the rage starts to hit you. How dare he just stare at you! Was he raised in a barn! Who does that! Obviously he isn’t the pillar of health as he was seeing the doctor too, so how dare he make judgments about your health! Enter flurry of expletives and a stop at Sonic for a Sundae, because you deserve one dammit, and the man is all but forgotten. You’ll never see him again–probably–and for extra therapy, you may just put out a personal blast as a status update on your Facebook page so your friends and family can agree with you on what a rude jerk that man was!

As the evening winds down, status update in full swing, and friends offer reassuring comments of justification, their own outrage, and positive affirmations of your greatness, there’s that one friend…the one that writes, “Maybe he was just curious. Why not educate him rather than blow up about it.” It’s the comment that stops you; it’s the comment that raises your hackles and makes you, for a brief moment, harbor some really ill feelings towards that friend, even if just for a moment. What that comment has done, what that comment’s underlying sentiment is, “you’re the odd one in this scenario, you should expect to have to explain yourself to others for being different.” That one comment has undermined your feelings in one fail swoop.

Here’s the thing, no one really minds the inquisitive or the curious. Being different isn’t a problem…until it is. As a highly evolved species we have the ability to feel the energy that those around us are putting off. It’s that sensation of someone watching you that tickles the back of your neck and makes your ears prick up, and with that feeling is an accompanying energy that warns us if what’s coming our way is curious and gentle or forbidding and aggressive. Everything about our demeanor sends messages to those around us: the tilt of our head; the arch of an eyebrow; the crossing of our arms or legs; the folding of our hands; the way we lean our body closer or father away from people, forward or back; the curve of our mouth; the squinting of our eyes. Our bodies are literally a full sized billboard of our thoughts and emotions and even our intentions. Is it possible for me to identify whether that man was staring at me in curiosity or in judgement? You betcha!

It’s our natural inclination to look at and consider the things around us that stand out, and the quickest way for something to stand out is to be different. In fact, isn’t that what we tell our children? It’s an American ideal deeply embedded in  us to stand apart from the herd. We encourage the concept of leaders by being different in everything we do, and the idea of teamwork, something that intrinsically makes us a collective, is valued second. Yet, it’s all too common that someone sees differences that are medically related as being undesirable. A look at the beauty industry and its current battle with body image and disability is a perfect example of this. I once wrote a paper on this after I realized that even medical magazines related to certain illnesses or injuries were full of ads for wheelchairs that used models who didn’t have a disability. Talk about being unable to relate! We are so obsessed with the ideal of what health and beauty is that even wheelchair manufacturers wouldn’t use real wheelchair users in their advertisements!

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to offer that rather than having our feelings hurt we should just educate the individual we are perceiving as being rude. What you don’t understand is that when you say that, you are placing the blame on us for our differences. Civil rights movements have been fought over, people have died for, the belief that being different isn’t wrong. As an individual, my personality, the energy that I put out into the world, is that I seek to educate and nurture others. I have never, not in all the years that I have been with my husband, ever begrudged a genuine curiosity of my husband’s condition. Not surprisingly, it’s not children who ask the most questions, it’s the adults. Honestly, most children who have never seen or interacted with a wheelchair just assume that my husband is part robot and that makes him the coolest person on the planet. More often then not they will give their parents disappointed stares for not being part robot themselves. So why doesn’t it surprise me that children aren’t the one’s asking the rude questions? Because children aren’t born with prejudice. A child’s mind seeks to understand the information that is has gathered, and to do this they compartmentalize information they have learned and then ascribe new information to one of these already understood categories. Hence, my husband is a Transformer (thank you Takara-Tomy/Hasboro ). Adults though, even the best of us, are jaded in some way. We suspect that any medical difference is catching. Perhaps it’s too much knowledge, perhaps too little, but ultimately it’s not my, or any other persons with a disability, responsibility to educate the uneducated, to make you feel better that you can’t catch whatever we have.

If I were to impart one bit of wisdom on you, it would be this: Ask questions, but do it from a place of sincere and genuine kindness and interest for the person you are speaking with. Think about your question for just a moment and put it to this test: would I ask this question if they were my friend, and would I ask this question if my momma was sitting next to me? Chances are, if your question failed those tests, you should probably get to know me, and know me well, before asking those burning questions. If your question or statement seems to affront the person you’re asking, rather than assert an opinion that it’s their place to educate you, try to put yourself in their position and ask yourself how you would have reacted if the same were asked of you, and  then ask yourself how you would feel if you were asked that question repeatedly. You may find that you wouldn’t like it, either. Most importantly, don’t just stare. Staring is probably the most hurtful thing you can do. As much as you think that your words can cut, so can your expression, and perhaps even more so because we are left with interpreting what you’re thinking about us. If your thoughts are unkind, chances are you’re face is telling us as much. We’re all trying to get through this journey called life and make the most of our time here. Our differences is what makes the journey richer. Be the light that guides, not the shadow that swallows those different from you in your wake.

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