It was not the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done.
When I wanted a snack one night, I opened a container of Greek vanilla yogurt and went to my spice rack to sprinkle something on top. Cinnamon has always been one of my favorite flavors and I frequently use it to compliment sweet things. Almost automatically I reached for the bottle. Nothing seemed off…
Until my first bite.
The bitter heat and intensity caught me completely off guard, and because I was expecting sweetness, it made me gag a bit. Blech! Cayenne pepper was mixed in with my yogurt, only because I wasn’t paying attention.
Several years ago, I went on my first road trip in years. Starting out before sunrise, my caregiver and I stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast. Close to the entrance, a woman stepped out and held the door for us. I thanked her. I thought that would be the end of the interaction, but it wasn’t.
“I know how hard your life is,” she responded. “I was in a wheelchair for several months.”
She meant well. I do not want to diminish that aspect of what happened at all. My impression was that she wanted to share her experience in order to show her support.
I get that. Really, I do.
But it didn’t come out that way. What she meant as solidarity came across as sadness.
That was prevalent as she shared her story. It left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
One of the things that bothered me was the assumption. Did she think my life was bad, that everything that I went through because of my disability was negative? She would be mistaken. And if I had that attitude, it would eat me alive.
I would be the first to admit that my life is not easy and that when my strength is stripped away, some days simply suck. But isn’t that true for everyone? Why did she feel the need to set me apart? Some people perceive my circumstance as difficult shouldn’t mean that it is socially acceptable to feel sorry for me. Most of my life is pretty great.
Look at it from my perspective. It would never occur to me to go up to a stranger in a public place and say something like, “I see you have acne. My cousin has acne. It must be so embarrassing for you.”
Why wouldn’t I ever do that? Because the experience of a stranger only has the potential to be similar to my own. I don’t want to judge how someone else might respond to that circumstance.
To make matters worse, a different woman made similar comments as she held the door open for us when we left. “I know your hardship,” she said. “My mother has been in a wheelchair since I was sixteen.”
I empathize that the personal experiences of these women have been challenging, I just don’t like having all that negativity dumped on me.
My other objection? Neither of these women paid attention. It seems pretty short sighted to look at a single thing that I deal with and presume it carries a particular downbeat meaning that applies to the rest of my life. I mean, sometimes I don’t like that I am short. That characteristic can be frustrating, but it doesn’t take away from the amazing life that I have.
They also didn’t pay attention to my reaction. If a stranger took the time to seek you out and express sympathy for your situation, even though you don’t see it that way, wouldn’t that tend to put a damper on your day?
Too much cayenne for my liking. Blech!
What is my hope when I see strangers in public who want to interact with me? My answer is simple.
I want them to be the cinnamon, not the cayenne.
Look me in the eye. Smile. Ask me my name. Wish me a good day. Leave it at that. Adding sweetness to my experience will lighten my load. Most comments that anybody says about their own history with disability leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.
I have known my friend Amy for many years. Also a wheelchair user, she “runs” half marathons, mentors kids, works in the music industry and is active in her church. I have heard her talk about her frustration when people treat her differently than the strong, capable, independent woman that she is.
I can relate
The statement that Amy uses, to sum up how the general public can be helpful to people with disabilities is both beautiful and profound.
“One of the main ways to help reduce the obstacles that people with disabilities face every day is simply not to be one.”
Be the cinnamon instead.