What is “the other,” anyway?
I’ll admit it. Before I had my stroke at 19, I was afraid of the unknown. While I didn’t actively avoid people in wheelchairs or people with obvious disabilities of any kind, I also definitely didn’t go out of my way to get to know them.
I even used to work as a reader for the visually impaired and as a writer for testing services at the accommodations facility at my university, but I still felt uncomfortable probing too deep.
In fact, my best friend’s sister is severely autistic, and I don’t think I ever asked her that much about what it must have been like to be raised alongside a sibling who didn’t speak in full sentences or didn’t have control over her own outbursts.
It wasn’t because I judged them; it was because they were different. People with disabilities were unknown territory, and it was best not to get involved. If I’m being frank, I probably avoided exploring it because I didn’t want to know. It didn’t apply to me. Many people feel this way about people with disabilities, with medical issues, with mental illness, of other races and cultures, of other beliefs. It’s an evolutionary instinct -- the familiar is safe; the unknown potentially dangerous.
It’s kept the human species alive for thousands of years.
To suddenly find myself belonging to this club of “the other” was humbling. It’s easy to get up on a high horse and condemn (whether actively or passively*) “the other,” especially when it doesn’t seem relevant to you or your life.
But I’d like to invite you to explore this idea: Everything. Is. Relevant.
I remember an outing I had from my rehab hospital. One fine afternoon, my family was able to take me to a restaurant in my wheelchair and helmet.
The hostess wouldn’t look me in the eye or speak to me directly. “Would she like anything to drink?” she asked my dad after going around individually to each member of my family.
I remember I was enraged. She saw me. She knew I was there.
I was still a fucking person with real fucking feelings, and she acted as though I were insignificant.
“Two months ago, I was walking around just like she was,” I seethed. I pointed at the right side of my head. “This could happen to her tomorrow, and she’d be the one comatose in a hospital ICU, paralyzed on one side.” I hated her, and more, her powerlessness over her own ignorance.
Even as I write this, I’m feeling the residual fury course through my veins.
Anger can be a frightening, very natural emotion that gets triggered in this journey. What I’ve found to be most useful is to let it run its course, to feel it -- and then ask myself, “What about this experience made me so angry?”
For me, I wasn’t truly mad at the hostess. I was pissed at my situation.
It wasn’t fair that I was being pushed around in a wheelchair wearing a helmet fit for my head. Not fair that that head was no longer perfectly round and symmetrical because I’d had surgery -- and I wasn’t supposed to be spending my summer break living in a hospital. I’d been able to go on this restaurant outing with my family as a special treat, and this reminder that my life was forever changed had come to taunt me.
I didn’t want to be reminded. I didn’t want to be “the other.” I wanted my old life back, and for restaurant hostesses to ask me what I wanted to drink. I wanted to walk with my own two legs through those restaurant doors.
But the wheelchair and the helmet advertised otherwise. “This girl is different. Tread with caution. She’s more trouble than she’s worth.” I was there with my family and my best friend, who had flown all the way out from Arizona at the drop of a hat to see me, to have a nice day integrated back into the world. I was having lunch!
I was entitled to a lunch date with my loved ones outside of the hospital without having to be reminded of the surreal nightmare my physical life had become, 24/7 for what had already been over a month.
So before we turn the other cheek and we conclude that somebody is now “the other,” guard this idea ferociously within the chambers of your heart: We are all stardust. Fundamentally, we are all spiritual beings having a physical experience, and not the other way around. To judge another human being is to spit in the face of our creator.
Ultimately, I had to make peace with my reality. I had to let the anger go, heal the upset. Forget that I was entitled to fairness or to an easy life. This was my body now, and I could either give up (um, no) or I could move forward doing the best with what tools I had.
And yes, making peace includes not antagonizing the people who do or say things that trigger me. They, too, are living their lives doing the best they can with the tools they have.
Have you had a similar experience? Does any of this speak to you? If so, please share this post with your friends and leave a comment for me.
Be sure to tune into today’s #STROKESCOPE at 7pm CT; I feel called to explore this a bit more.
[Ed. note: replay of my scope is below due to my tech issues! The scope was broadcasted from the wrong account. #n00b]
To our healing,
*I believe that unconsciously hiding within social constructs of people who are familiar -- and therefore “safe” -- rather than extending basic social courtesy or acknowledgment to someone unfamiliar counts as a passive, fear-based practice. Something to pay attention to.