An older heavy-set woman with a slight moustache stands at the bus stop arguing out loud, with a look of sheer frustration painted on her face. You notice that there are sweat stains dropping down beneath the open arms of her flowered print dress, clearly visible every time she waves her freckled jiggly arms in the air punctuating every point she helplessly makes.
There are two possibilities that occur to you. She might be loop-de-loop crazy, and she’s on the losing site of an argument with a ghost in her imagination. Maybe it’s her mother, who never told her she was smart, or pretty. Maybe it’s her brother, now dead for fourteen years, and she’s trying to resolve their last argument about her bad money management skills.
So you look a little closer (while maintaining your distance), just to see if you can spot a little flashing blue light near her earlobes, because you’d like to know if she’s safe. It’s hard to tell, as she’s wearing large hoop earrings, which are just slightly peeking beneath her long hair. Maybe she’s actually talking to a real person. Maybe a bill collector, or maybe it’s her mother who is still alive, and still causing her no end of emotional pain.
Finally you decide she’s lost her grasp of reality. So you wonder how she got there. How does anyone get from “A” to “coo-coo-coo cocoa puffs”. What was the insurmountable sorrow that broke the dam of her intelligence and awareness?
Maybe you don’t want to know. Maybe the information would be too scary. Maybe….if it happened to her, it could happen to anyone. Knowing this would destroy your carefully wrought sense of emotional invincibility. Gone are the days when nothing could hurt you physically. You now know that a fall could cause a broken bone. At least you have your sanity. Right?
If you ever watch little kids playing – or if you remember what it was like when you were a kid – you’ll know that they don’t worry about too much. They have a narcissistic knowledge that everything’s okay, and that they don’t have to worry about their next meal or the fact that their mom and dad love them. Not having those burdens gives them a freedom to explore the limits of their imagination with each other. They play and say the craziest things almost without thought.
You remember what it was like. You recall standing under a hot sun on your porch, and making the determination that you – no YOU – would be the captain of the spaceship and your friend would be the alien. Hours would go by before you finished your scene with him, and when mom said “okay boys, it’s time for dinner. Say goodbye to your friend”, you shrugged and knocked fists with him, the make-believe game now forgotten as your nostrils inhaled the mouth-watering aroma of roast beef.
As you grow older you realize a few things – in the moment – that excite you. You notice, as a pre-teen, that lights – physical lights – seem to draw you out. City streetlights, the amber glow of the sanctuary candle, as it flickers and creates red shadows which labour to reach the vaulted church ceilings. Or the neon glow of the computerized gizmos that capture your attention. You don’t wonder at this fascination, because for you it’s normal. It doesn’t even occur to you that your interest is not actually usual or the norm. It just is.
Or you read poetry or hear a song, and you get transported on the resonant notes as they draw you further and further away from the present. You exult in the ebb and swell of the violins or accordion, completely unaware that your friend has no appreciation for your experience. At the same time, it never occurs to your autistic friend that his fascination for data, for numbers, for the accumulation and retention of historical knowledge – is in any way unusual. He thinks everyone is the same.
We all do.
And where we see that we’re different, our instinct tells us we need to conform. It’s too weird to be *too* different from our peers. Our minds rationalize the difference, and we work hard at being the same, all the while expounding on our uniqueness, our coolness.
Some of us seek the conformity of a common mindset, in whatever form that takes. For some, it’s a clique at high school, and we make sure everyone notices that we can drink the same amount of beer as anyone else, and that we can tell dirty jokes, or that we can laugh as we throw toilet paper on the trees at the nerd’s place.
Others of us are the nerds, and we take pleasure in our supposedly superior intellect, and in our ability to play chess and pursue intellectual accomplishments as evidenced by our good grades.
Still others jump into the conformity of the church pews, secure in our salvation.
That little girl who can’t help thinking about her desire to help the underdog never realizes how unique she is. How beautiful her heart is.
The little boy never understands that his need to act out is really an extension of his need to entertain and build imaginary characters. He thinks he’s the same as everyone else. He has no awareness of the shy kid, the kid who hasn’t yet learned how to fit in with the rest.
And so we get into these clubs and groups and find that we feel safe in them. We defend them as valid – which for us at the time, they are.
But then there are the other unique groups that are too unusual for us. Like the old lady with the flabby arms. Or the group of boys who wear their baseball caps a little weirdly, and talk differently and have different coloured skin.
Or (worse!), those girls who hang out together and hold hands and make out with each other in the alley. Or the buys who laugh a little too loudly, and have sparkling alive eyes, as they joke with each other with a familiarity that is *too* familiar.
It never occurs to us that the individuals in those groups also grew up, just like we did, thinking that their hopes and dreams and desires were all normal. They in fact didn’t realize they were ABnormal at all – until someone told them.
But this isn’t about them. Or about the old woman. Or the actors or painters or the autistic guy.
It’s about you. And me. And the realization that ultimately we don’t fit into a singular mould or group. We are created to be unique. Some of the things we experience aren’t “usual”. We aren’t defined by our love of music, or our unique acting abilities, or our penchant for crunching numbers and finding the myriad ways in which math defines existence. We – each of us – are comprised of a million different characteristics.
If we could all just *see* each other exactly was we are, we’d know that we aren’t the same. Maybe we’d appreciate our unique views more. I don’t know. Maybe we’d understand that not all fingerprints are exactly the same, or each snowflake. Maybe we would be aware that total sameness would be boring and dull. Uninteresting and flat.
Last week when having a heated debate about gays who wanted the right to marry, I thought about those who were opposed. It startled me how easily I was able to compartmentalize those whose ideologies and religion boxed them into an intolerance of the ideal of treating all people the same. Though it was so very tempting to dismiss my opponents as intellectual Neanderthals, incapable of original thought, the fact is, I appreciated the need not to lump everyone together but to value and respect each person for their unique take on this and other issues. The more I read what they had to say, the more it seemed to me that opinions are rarely arrived at in a vacuum. Some are parroting others’ opinions, while others have given it great thought, perhaps under the influence of religious leaders, or perhaps as a result of a logical internal debate. Whatever the case, I found I could not paint everyone with the same brush. Finally, without surrender of my beliefs on the issue, I arrived at the following point:
I don’t like to categorize or dismiss people too easily or often because I don’t want to get ripped off. Even if I disagree with them and think they’re short-sighted, immature or ignorant, the fact is they might say something that will get me to think differently. They might offer new wisdom or information to which I was previously unaware. I don’t want to miss that.
Occasionally my first prejudiced judgement of them proves to be in error. Those are the best surprises. And sometimes I’m so wrong as to feel embarrassed. That’s a good thing too because I get to learn.
Curiosity is the bane of prejudice.