On Judging People in Adversity [they are still people]
March 12, 2014
I work at an optical store selling glasses. The other day a man and his son walked in. The son was my age, so I attended to him using my usual 'selling' technique- a cocktail of backhanded remarks, compliments, and failed attempts at humour. I didn’t even get a sympathy laugh out of him. He just stared at me dumbfounded, and then tried to muster up a half-baked smile. Has this guy never spoken to a girl before? I wondered. To avoid making things awkward, I moved on to explaining health funds to his dad. His dad looked a little worse for wear, but seemed like a nice, personable man, so I tried to crack a few extra jokes to lighten the mood. Oddly enough, his dad had that same shocked expression on his face, and although I could read a degree of appreciation behind his eyes, his smile was just as artless as his son's. Was I being inappropriate here? Why were they acting so strangely? I just stuck to my job and sold the guy his glasses. They thanked me graciously and left.
The next week the store was a bit busier. While I was finishing up a job, I noticed a few people walking in. My eyes were drawn to a man carrying a teenage boy in a wheelchair. I was fixated on the boys limbs. It was as if his skin was wrapped tightly around the bone so that no muscle could even try grow in between. He looked so weak and frail. My eyes darted and I noticed the man's billowing eye-bags. Poor thing, I thought, and then gave him the dreaded 'sympathy face'. Only then did I notice that the person that walked in with them was the son from the other week. And this drained man, carting the wheel chair was the personable dad.
No wonder they were acting so weirdly. For the first time in a while, someone was treating them (even if a little obnoxiously) like any other ordinary human. That was why they were so dumbfounded. I think they forgot what it felt like to exist without a label. To have people laugh and be silly around them without feeling that obligation to be sombre. And now I just acted like an asshole and did 'the face' that they were probably already so used to getting. The face that manages to acknowledge and ignore at the same time- It acknowledges their predicament, but ignores them as a person. It treats them like a shell of their true self, as if all that is left to them is the adversity they are currently facing. I honestly didn’t even look at the man or else I would have recognised him. I'm ashamed to say that all I saw was the chair.
Now how can I make all these assumptions about what they were thinking?
Because I was in the same position 3 years prior. (And I still put them in that position, yeah I know). My youngest brother had a 6m fall with a subsequent acquired brain injury. Let me paint the picture: Here was this young man, slumped lifelessly in a wheelchair, with hardly any motor control- a droopy mouth, lax arms, and eyes looking in different directions. Nobody could tell he used to be a tall, broad-shouldered clever boy with too much tongue and cheekiness to handle, but a smile that would make you cop it anyway.
And there I was, carting him, basically a shadow of my former self. I was so frail that my friend said that if I bent over you would almost be afraid that I might snap. I looked like a lifeless zombie. You couldn't tell that I was an over-confident, talkative, brat of a girl, who was sometimes sweet, but sometimes had a little too much attitude for her own good.
So fair enough if people saw us walking and freaked out a little. Or tried to give us a sympathy smile and then looked away. I agree, we were uncomfortable to look at. But imagine being looked at like that day after day, all the time. People treat you like your situation has become your identity. Of course, your experience will have shaped the way you think and live your life. But it shouldn’t have to consume you. People going through adversity aren't characters in a play; they still have the other dimensions that made them whole before- I still wanted to be the girl I used to be, and have to worry about friends, and boys, and other things typical of my age. I didn’t want to be a 40 year old trapped in a 19 year olds body.
It was hard enough to stop myself from thinking that way, let alone facing everyone's sombre face- people felt too guilty to talk about the party that happened the night before, or complain about uni, or other things that they deemed trivial. The things is, it's not your call. Sometimes people need that triviality, to give them a sense of normalcy. Without that, and without any outlet to being silly, you get pushed into a box, and eventually you get trapped; becoming the shell of a person that people treated you as in the first place.
Being a few years older, I have seen it happen so much more now. Think about it- everyone goes through some kind of shit. Whether it’s a family breakdown; personal sickness or cancer; lifestyle decisions; or substance abuse like drugs/alcohol; everyone has faced some kind of hardship, and a subsequent kind of label. And I'm pretty confident in saying that the labels would have made the issue so much harder to fight.
I know nobody wants to consciously impose this on anybody else, and I also know that it's hard to know how to react when you see someone in a tough time (I didn’t react the best of ways the other week either). I guess the point of this post is to acknowledge that although we might always have some degree of reflex reaction (like sympathy face), we should try our best to restore some sense of normalcy to the lives of people going through hardship, and just treat them like a regular person. It's hard enough for them to fight getting consumed by their predicament, don’t let yourself lay one of the boards in the box that eventually consumes them.