“Take it from me, in order to be connected, understood, and truly comfortable in our skin, we need to look at each other. Dare I say STARE at each other. Soak each other in.”
It is amazing to me how every single day of my life I am confronted with people looking, pretending not to look, or looking away quickly at my legs, hands, or leg braces. It is a small awkwardness and lives at the heart of far more than my disability, it speaks to the state of the union of people.
Because of my disability, and especially my leg braces, I have an obvious difference. An unusual focal point. And it places me in the center of others’ attention. This became really clear to me this past weekend when I went on a trip to New York City. Spent the better part of 4 days walking, in shorts, around the streets of Manhattan. What was most interesting to note was how many people looked at my legs and braces. Noticeably increased from the slightly politer folk in my day to day of Denver. New Yorkers are more direct. More blunt. Straighter to the point. And in this vein, were quicker to look right at my braces and really investigate visually. They were equally as aware when I would catch them looking, but were slower to look away when this happened. And I appreciated that. They were unapologetic about looking. It was interesting and different and they wanted to know the scoop. Not one thing wrong with that. Mind you, not one of them actually asked me what they were. That would be my preference, to simply say “do you mind if I ask you about those?” Yet, they did at least cast their gaze, with enough time to help me feel that there was nothing wrong with my condition. Nothing to look away from. Just something to see and absorb. And I did get 3 different “God Bless Yous!” from folks on the street.
I have always preached to the people around me that I would prefer people to look. It is a natural response to our innate curiosity. When we see something unusual, we research it. We want to know more about it. We are driven to feed our ignorance. That is human nature, and yet everything about our culture has turned that curiosity into impoliteness. It isn’t right to “stare”. As if to imply that we should go through our day looking straight ahead or down. Not connecting. Not learning. Creating distance. One of the very problems of our current state as a community. I was recently walking with Megan into a grocery store. A young boy and his Dad were walking in behind us. The boy said, “Dad, look at those things on his legs.” The father quickly told him that was not polite. What are you teaching your son? What message does that send? And how does that reaction prepare that kid to thrive in a world of blissful differences? Take it from me, in order to be connected, understood, and truly comfortable in our skin, we need to look at each other. Dare I say STARE at each other. Soak each other in. And ask one another, especially about those personal things we try to cover and wish we could conceal. But the ultimate truth is that we can’t hide our truth. And the only way to truly get past the things that are “abnormal” about ourselves is to truly accept them. And one of the grandest paths to that acceptance is to share it with others. Yes, even strangers. To get as versed and comfortable talking about our unusual height, or weight, or walk, or scars, or traumas, or health issues, or mental health issues, or leg braces, as we are talking about the weather or the time of day. Because they are equally as factual. And only take on added weight and shame when we attempt to hide them.
I am not saying this is easy. Even I find myself reacting when I catch someone staring at me; it triggers my ego. But my job is to fight against that. Remind myself in that moment that they mean no harm (usually). And try and force myself to smile at them. To teach them that it is OK by my gentle reaction. And, when opportunity allows, to lend my verbal explanation to fill them with knowledge and rid them of ignorance. If we practiced this more often, especially with strangers, we would start to remember how similar we truly are. We would start to feel more connected to our fellow humans. And we would slowly create the very culture that eases fear and replaces it with strength. So, from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of those with an obvious difference, I challenge you to Just Look.