The Contents of a Heart

Oprah proclaims, the Flirtations sing, and our parents teach us that the most important thing in life and the measure of our worth is the quality of the intimate relationships we form. This lesson takes the emphasis off the superficialities of economic status, professional achievements, race and background to focus on who we are as people. It stresses love as the purpose of living and is meant to make us kinder, more caring individuals.

Currently the trappings of success are not evident in my life, so this lesson should be a comfort to me: my disability limits my energy not my heart’s ability to care about others. And, yet, instead it seems to mock me. I could be a saint, but few would know. I could be filled with hate, but this too would be rarely known. Without basking in my kindness or withering before my malevolence, how can the nature of my heart and therefore the quality of my love be witnessed? It’s like the proverbial tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.

I have given this conundrum careful consideration and realized its inherent irony: I lack the trapping of success in my life and this only emphasizes more my difference. For whatever reason, that difference makes people les likely to see me as potential friend. With fewer friends, the contents of my heart is evident less.

So, what’s a person to do? My handful of friends get a lot of attention for I have time to listen and space in my head to keep track of important things in their lives. When one bemoaned her inability to do the same for me, we thrashed it out and discovered it is all about math. People have a specific amount of attention to lavish on others. This amount is defined by both the character of their heart and the busyness of their lives. It is then apportioned out amongst their friends – more friends translates into less resources for each person. Most won’t simply spend this fixed amount on each friend they have, but devote more to some and less to others. While detached and calculating, this theory explains why people with a vast circle of friends often bemoan not having many intimate connections. And while it also makes clear why my friends say I spoil them, it hasn’t solved my problem.

I have made an effort to look for ways I can extend kindness to relative strangers such as baking treats for a memorial service or offering support to somebody I thought needed it. The person thought I was weird and the jury is out on the cookies. I have tried enlarging my circle of intimates by how I interact with friends of friends. No luck yet. Short of hanging out a sign advertizing myself as a stellar friend, I am out of ideas, so I ruminate on the cause.

Over time, I have noticed a decrease in the number of people who have obviously misguided notions of disability. Total silence upon forced interaction with me is no longer the norm. The offer of a guiding arm has increased and being dragged by some body part decreased. Tolerance is on the rise and fills me with joy. People beating down my door to become a part of my life has yet to happen. Why?

Whether it be from school assemblies on how to interact with other disabled students, picking up tips from watching movies, or experience, people have more information about how to behave with a disabled person which explains the increase in positive casual encounters. An understanding of what it means to be disabled does not come with knowing to face a Deaf person when speaking or that service dogs should not be distracted from their jobs. This lack of understanding seems to be at the core of my dilemma.

Since I have always been disabled, I can only offer educated speculation. I used to think people rejected me as potential friend because of the hassles my disability would inherently create – I can’t drive to meet them, they might need to function as sighted guide, and who knows what else. While this is probably true in some cases, over the years I have come to realize it is usually more basic. Most people think of disability in terms of what it means the individual cannot do. This laundry list is a barrier through which it is hard for a disabled person’s assets to be perceived. When they meet me, people think about all I cannot do because I cannot see as opposed to noticing my quick wit or empathetic tendencies. It isn’t a matter of me being considered for friendship and rejected. It is a matter of me never being in the running because I am not a person but a collection of inabilities.

This explanation offers comfort in that it is clear this has nothing to do with me. Unfortunately, the potential solution is time. Just as people have become more educated about how to behave around a disabled person they will also begin to see past the barrier of inabilities to the person. Then I will have a chance for my value to be defined by the love I bestow. Until then I am left to spoil those in my life and ponder the wording of that “stellar friend” billboard.

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About Jen

After acquiring a degree from Vassar College in psychology, I moved to Western Mass where I ran a peer mentoring network for disabled college students as well as activism and organizing around disability issues. I also conducted research on disabled women’s body image. An Upstate New York native, I eventually followed my heliotropic nature to the sun of Southern California. I divide my time between writing (disability fiction and essays) along with moderating San Diego Bisexual Forum which is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In my off hours I can often be found in my neighborhood live music venue enjoying our local talent.

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