On Healing 4/28/2008: Encountering someone different

What is your first instinct when you see someone who is disfigured, deformed or just plain different? To look away? To react by rote?

Many years ago, waiting to meet a colleague, I was sitting in the lobby of Hahnemann Hospital, my briefcase on my lap, drinking a cup of coffee – when a woman in an obvious hurry walked by and put a dollar in my cup! She clearly didn’t see a man in a wheelchair. She saw someone who was “different,” and responded quickly.

I tell this story frequently because it teaches us so much about ourselves. Our brains are hardwired to react instantly to members of our species who don’t look or behave the way they “should.” When we encounter someone with a disfigured body or acting in ways that don’t fit the expected norm, we feel distress.

It happens so fast that we don’t even know what we’re feeling. Our first instinct, however, is to find a way to diminish our distress. That’s why, when I go into a restaurant, the hostess will often ask my companion, “Where would he like to sit?” The hostess makes eye contact with my companion in order to lessen the stress of facing someone who is “different.”

Sometimes our reaction to the distress takes the form of anger or harsh judgment. Parents of children on the autism spectrum tell me that when their child becomes agitated in a public place, they frequently get critical looks or even patronizing comments. The reason: Affixing blame can help diminish distress caused by the unusual behavior of others. It makes the world feel more orderly.

There is a price, however, and not only for the person who is judged or ignored. Stress is a symptom; diminishing it by judging, criticizing or ignoring others is merely a form of symptom relief, like having a stiff drink.

So what can we do? Since stress is hardwired, allow yourself to simply experience the stressful feelings without trying to avoid them. Make eye contact if you can. (This gets easier with practice, as anyone who works with disabled people can tell you.)

I have always believed that if you look in someone’s eyes, you can find their humanity – and in that process, you can learn more about your own. If that woman in Hahnemann’s lobby had been able to look into my eyes, she would have seen a fellow human, a quadriplegic who in fact has a great deal in common with her.

And one other thing about those of us who look or act different. My grandson Sam, who is on the autism spectrum, is almost 8 years old. He is generally doing well in first grade but still struggles in some areas. Recently he had some classwork that he didn’t understand. Embarrassed about his difficulty, he took his book home without asking his teacher. When he spoke to his mother, not only was he embarrassed about not understanding the homework, he also felt guilty about taking the book home.

In order to assuage Sam’s guilt, his mom explained: “Sam, they have a special piece of paper at school that says when you have trouble with your work, you can ask the teacher and she will give you extra help. And if you still have trouble, she will call me and I will help also.”

But Sam didn’t feel better. He began to cry: “Mommy, I don’t want a special piece of paper.”

Sam speaks for most everyone who is “different.” None of us really wants that special piece of paper.

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