With age is suppose to come wisdom, but as I grow older the human race becomes more baffling. In fact, the deeper my understanding of human motivation the less certainty I possess. And while I suspect this is not unique to the disability experience, I do think my membership in that group adds a layer of complexity to an already jumbled muddle.
Meeting a new person and having a great conversation cannot be taken at face value. We all have to ask ourselves if the friendliness was genuine. Should the answer be yes, most folks move on to determining their next step. I, on the other hand, must then field a second question: Was the friendliness based on a perceived obligation to be nice to a disabled person or on feeling sorry for me? Unfortunately, authentic warmth and that based upon obligation or pity look remarkably similar because the sentiment is genuine and the variation is only that of motive.
I don’t think people realize that affability based on duty or sympathy is actually harmful because it sets up an expectation that will not be met. Everyone has mistaken another’s actions as an overture of friendship and felt the resulting sting. Now imagine being told that person thought they were doing a “good” thing. It tends to make my brain hurt.
Another case of “The older I get the harder it becomes” revolves around people’s “bad” behavior. Take my favorite situation of sitting alone at a party. I find it harder and harder to feel simple anger at such a state of affairs. Instead, my head starts to analyze the situation. What did I do wrong? What dynamics contributed to what occurred? Besides, being angry at behavior based on ignorance or not knowing what to do seems unmerited. More brain pain.
Then you have the truly obnoxious behavior. Perfect real life case in point. Recently, someone I have been acquainted with for years told me how great it was that with both eyes removed I had a chance to look normal. This came on the heels of a prior conversation in which he told me how off-putting my appearance is and how I should hide my eyes behind glasses to make others comfortable. Believe it or not, he’s still walking this earth with all his “equipment” in tact.
Did I get angry? Definitely. However, about five seconds later my brain started explaining to me why what he said reflected his generational background, that maybe he mistook my dark glasses as concealing behavior, and I probably misunderstood anyway.
This all happens because I am constantly seeking understanding of why TABs react to disabled people in particular ways. My knowledge base grows almost daily and I can call upon it to interpret actions directed at me. It’s like having the traditional angel and devil perched on either shoulder. My angel is a compilation of everyone who tells me to “See it from the other person’s perspective” while my devil is the amalgamation of every disabled activist I’ve ever admired.
Often a blog entry emerges from whatever issue I am currently trying to understand. Prior to sitting down at the computer, I talk – some probably think endlessly – about whatever I am wrestling. This week I have discovered that I feel responsible for how people feel about their less than stellar behavior. Example: I’m with another person and the cashier interacts with my companion while processing what is clearly my stuff. If I were to say, “Umm, that’s my stuff so maybe you should talk to me” and the cashier became upset about their own actions, I would feel like I caused their upset.
Fortunately a new perspective has emerged. When a person does something, they are responsible for how they feel about it. My role is to request a change in behavior and be responsible for how I feel about it. In other words, I didn’t do anything so how can I be to blame?