My Brain Hurts

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?

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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.

6 thoughts on “My Brain Hurts

  1. An unrelated thought…
    Consider this:
    I often find myself discounting and discarding the popular and generically prescribed response to social interaction and look to more visceral human connection to whom I have engaged at the moment.

    I can not tolerate those whom assume, in the first 5 minutes, a profile of who and what I am and do not challenge themselves with any further knowledge.

    To know me is an individual experience and to generalize me into a group is a de-service to the diversity of human existence.

    So, riddle me this; why do humans constantly try to generalize themselves?

  2. @Arita Because generalizations allow us to have the attention span that we do. Lacking the ability to generalize, every concept or feature that was not exactly like something we’d seen before would need to be observed and then classified.

    Animals generalize when they know that food is good and predators are bad. Our intelligence allows us to take it a step further and just “know” that “those people” are “like that”. We don’t have either the time or the inclination to know our world to the depth that we should.

  3. I think Arita’s question was why we put ourselves into categories. I think the answer has to do with our need as humans to feel a sense of belonging. When times are tough, I think that need morphs into a stronger desire to not be alone in the midst of a mess. Humans are social creatures and we come together in families, circles of friends, groups formed around a common interest…. We gather together in all sorts of ways. Generalizing ourselves into a group is just one more way we do that.

  4. I think we’re talking about the same thing on different scales. The generalizations that animal life need to make to survive evolved into the generalizations of “Home tribe” and “Other tribe”, and then into the various classifications of people today. Aren’t ALL tea partiers racist idiots? Aren’t ALL democrats supportive of radical wealth redistribution? Aren’t ALL geeks socially inept? Aren’t ALL hipsters just full of themselves?

    There is a severely disabled woman who moved into a unit a few doors down from me. She might have ALS, as she is in a wheelchair and does not make coherent utterances. Sometimes in the afternoons, she’s out in the courtyard enjoying the sunlight and fresh air. The first few times I saw her, I was uncertain as to her mental capacity because there literally are no outward signs. One time though, I saw one of her assistants using a word book to talk with her. At that point, I knew that she was sentient. I make it a point now to wave whenever I saw her and she happened to be facing towards me. Prior to that, I generalized based solely on her appearance that there might not be any significant brain activity. After that, I generalized her into the class of “ordinary thinking humans.” There’s also the two schizophrenic people who live in another unit of the complex. I was over at their house just last night helping them map a path out of credit card debt. We’re friends, but I generalize them into the class of people that I don’t expect too much from. I agree the problem comes when people omit the “might” and don’t consider the possibility of unexpected conditions.

    One can certainly ask, why wouldn’t you wave even if she didn’t have the capacity to understand a neighbor greeting her from afar. That is a good question, since I verbally greet dogs, cats and other animals when I encounter a person’s pet or visit a farm. There’s just a level of discomfort about that. Had she lacked any capacity to understand a greeting, then I think it would be better to just let those who take care of her be the ones who she interacts with in whatever limited capacity she had.

    (You can also ask why I don’t just go over and introduce myself. That’s a systemic problem in my condo complex. Most people keep to themselves, and there is little neighborhood cohesion. As a member of the board, I’m working on improving that aspect of it.)

  5. Steve,
    She could have ALS, CP (cerebral palsy), a stroke,ABI (acquired brain injury), or possibly even MS. Word boards are used in all kinds of situations. I’ll explain how it usually works if that means you’ll go say hi to her. Change, after all, begins with yourself. So, change your complex’s culture by talking to her.

    Arita, in my psych classes, we learned peple generalize to make sense of a complicated world. Our brains are binary — a neuron is either firing or not firing — so complications like degrees of things are hard for us to organize. We also tend to want thinking to happen quickly.

    As humans, we also possess the ability to fight against what our biology dictates and I’m not sure why more people don’t do just that. Probably boils down to whatever is easiest, fastest, and takes the least effort directed at another person.

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