Quite often when I go into a grocery store and get to the checkout counter, if the clerk does not already know me, he or she has some kind of reaction to my missing forearm and hand. There is a lot of busy work with the hands that goes on at a grocery checkout counter and the clerks don’t usually miss the fact that my right hand is not there. Quite often the clerk has a reaction of some kind and then I react to that reaction. And then we have an “interaction”. It is the quality of that kind of interaction that I am addressing here.
When the people of our nation acted on behalf of all disabled people in 1975 and voted in Public Law 94.142, all children were guaranteed their legal rights to a free and appropriate public education. Fifteen years later, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act became the law of the land and disabled people gained access and legal rights in the workplace. Ever since these landmark events occurred, there has been a steady and increasing flow of all types of disabled people more fully participating in mainstream community life.
In addition to this, the rapid expansion of technology brings product developers racing to design, build and introduce a whole array of devices to the market place. The lines between what able bodied people and disabled people can do are blurred or even erased. Exactly what constitutes a disability is not even black and white anymore.
So today, people from every race, religion, economic class, educational background and body type fill the streets of our cities and towns and all are deemed equal under the law. Along with the assurance of these rights comes the social responsibility to fulfill the ideal. In other words, we have to learn how to get along with each other and quite often, there-in lies the rub.
Back at the grocery store, when it is time for me to check out, I can be pretty sure that the cashier will be outwardly friendly and helpful since that is the requirement of the job. The underlying ease that the person has with this is the telling factor. A genuinely gracious person puts me at ease and allows me to be myself, freely ask for what-ever I may need and the encounter is pleasant.
Everyone is not the same however and it can happen that an uncomfortable person will be overly solicitous and treat me as an object in his or her efforts. This leaves me in a position of deciding how to respond to someone who is inadvertently belittling me. I’ve been known to take this sort of interaction in many different directions and they weren’t always good.
One of the things that I have often had cashiers do is reach out and hold my check book down while I write a check. When this is done to make a show of helping me, I find it to be intrusive. If I think my check book is going to get away I may ask for assistance, but unless I do, I don’t want the clerk to take charge of this on my behalf.
Sometimes when I pay in cash I have to count change so I put a pile of coins down on the counter. I have had clerks stick their hand into my pile of coins and start counting. I always tell them that I want to count my own money and ask them to let me do it.
Another stumbling block that can occur with a store check-out is with the credit card machine. Many of these are mounted on a swivel stand and if a person tries to swipe with one hand without holding it still with the other, it spins around and won’t register the swipe. Also, the swiping slot is always on the right side and my working hand is on the left which adds a small but additional maneuver to the task. This has aggravated me enormously when I am trying to check out in a hurry and am holding other things. In these instances, I have often silently cursed the clerk for not reaching out to hold the machine still.
All of us bring our own temperament to our daily activities and interactions. At least part of this template is based on the life experiences we have had to date as well as what we have decided about ourselves or someone else, based on those experiences. A life event drives up a value system that we then “buy into” as easily as picking an item off the store shelf and placing it in our cart. And then it is ours.
I remember a values forming incident when I was little, about seven years old. I was a very active child and liked to lose myself for hours on end while I played outside with many different playmates. There was a particular roving band of some rough and tumble neighborhood boy and girl kids, a little older than me, that I sometimes tried to keep up with.
One day I joined them as we all ran across the street to the school yard to play on the swings. Here there were several swings of different heights, all too high for any of us to just sit down on. The other kids each ran to a swing, grabbed the chain on each side of the plank seat and hoisted themselves up. In an instant they were swinging high, standing on the seats and doing stunts in the air.
I was mortified that I could not hoist myself up onto the swings and it stopped me dead in my tracks. In that instant I sealed off my heart and my ever helpful brain went to work. I think it was these very moments that a new working but ultimately lonely winning formula found its roots in my psyche. While I secretly vowed to figure out how to get up on the swing seat by myself, outwardly, in front of these kids, I pretended that I didn’t really care and didn’t want to anyway.
To successfully pull off this particular brand of bravado, while I was too young to know what I was doing, I had to invent some arrogance on the spot. In my mind I reduced the worthiness of these kids while I propped myself up to be more important. I made it up that they were selfishly hogging the fun energy and I was the little angel who was callously left out. All of this to avoid the self-generated thought that I might not be as athletically capable as they were.
I left the playground and went home by myself, armed with a new tool in my toolbox. In the years to come, as I matured in many other ways, I kept my arrogance close at hand. I also readily labeled anybody else as “stupid” either privately or openly if they in any way looked like they might be ready to one-up me or threaten me in some fashion.
This value system, among others, worked for me for many years. I developed and refined my ability to bring my own arrogance into play not only with sales people and cashiers but in a wide variety of situations. It became my default way of being even if I often covered it up in an effort to be polite. Looking back now, it is easy to see how I could paint myself into a lonely corner, no matter how many people I had around me or what they privately thought of me.
One time, when I was a ravishing 18 to 20-year-old, I was hanging out with my latest Prince Charming. As we were sitting there in front of a TV, the afternoon news flashed a story about a teenaged boy who had an arm that looked to be just like mine only his was scrawny and the muscles were underdeveloped. The camera zoomed in on his skinny arm and the news story was about how this boy was helpless and wouldn’t ever be able to make his way in life. At the conclusion of that story my Prince Charming turned to me and said “Well, we know what’s going on there, don’t we?”
If I had been more present to myself when Prince Charming said that, I would have tenderly kissed him and thanked him for being able to actually see me, and maybe eventually lived happily ever after. What I did instead was default to my arrogant posture and say that everyone involved in THAT situation was “stupid”.
I held on to this arrogance as it subtly colored my personality and overtly colored many of the interactions in my daily life. Looking back, I can see that friends accepted this trait in me and I could even turn it into an entertaining persona. It was always my weapon when I dealt with cashiers and service people. If an uncertain moment arose anywhere in the interaction, I clobbered them with an arrogant remark that belittled them and propped me up.
In time I came to see how much this trait stunted both my own growth and my relationships with other people. I began to notice that an important part of me was sealed off and I wanted to unseal it. It became a life mission for me to reach more deeply into my own heart and more authentically touch the hearts of others.
I started learning how to meditate both alone and with a guiding teacher. I soon realized that in my heart of hearts I saw myself as a little flawed child. I protected myself from others hurting me in my most vulnerable place and in doing so I was keeping everybody, including me away from this essential part of myself.
The journey that unraveled this limiting pattern is a subject for another essay but unravel it, I did.
As I progressed more deeply into my own heart, I became more freed up in my relationships. I got good at letting up any pain I had sealed off. Then I fully embraced it. Sometimes I was sad, sometimes grief stricken, sometimes aggravated and angry. The key for me was to open my heart, let it up and allow myself to authentically feel my way around it. Then, let it go.
Having more freedom to truly accept the whole package of me brought a new ability to accept the whole package in other people. Propping myself up and belittling others became unnecessary. With the wounded places inside of me healed, stunted behavior by others has no place with in me to land. I can interact with people and give feedback from a much more balanced place. I can recognize that offensive behavior is going on in their skin and now I can have compassion for them.
Everybody is some place in his or her own social development and awareness in our very diverse country. This freedom to honor each person’s place on the continuum flows out of my own honoring of myself, exactly as I am.
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