Sarah Gassen: Our differences are undeniable, but they do not define who we are

2013-02-07T00:00:00Z 2013-02-07T15:10:33Z Sarah Gassen: Our differences are undeniable, but they do not define who we areSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

I have this fear that the headline on my obit will read: "One-legged journalist kicks the bucket."

OK, that is marginally hilarious. But really, is this how we see each other?

Why do we see what is missing more clearly than what is present?

I've written about my experience with a prosthetic leg before. It's not who I am. It's part of how I live. Just like any other person. I navigate the world as a whole person. Because, whoever we are and whatever others may see as being absent, we are each complete.

Our completeness changes as we grow older, face illness or accident. But this is constant - we are each more than the parts of us that are different, than how we must adjust to new realities.

I've used a prosthetic (fake) leg since my left leg was amputated at a Shriners Hospital when I was 3. No accident, no illness, just how I was born. (I refuse to use the words "birth defect" - no child is defective; we are as we are.)

When I wear shorts, sometimes people look. Sometimes they don't.

Sometimes it's the sidelong glance, the head-down I'm-really-looking-at-something-else. Sometimes it's the no-frills Martha Look at That!! point-and-gawk.

The same thing happens to other people who are somehow different, who use wheelchairs or whose appearance is not what we expect.

Yet, for all the noticing and judging humans do, we possess a tremendous ability to drive down the same street for years and not notice the brown house that's always been there.

And somehow, we still manage to feel self-conscious, even when our rational brain says no one is paying attention. They are, in a dozen tiny ways.

But what if we paid real attention, if we afforded each other the kindness we would like to ask for ourselves. Imagine how powerful and productive that would be in facing our complicated world.

Confession: I pay attention to what other people buy at Costco. Being easily amused comes in handy during weekend errands.

Best recent sighting: guy carrying the giant box of Hot Pockets and a mop.

I don't know anything about Mr. Future Indigestion, but I know that whatever happens, he is ready.

Maybe he even knows Mr. What-Do-You-Mean-There's-No-Pickled-Herring-At-This-Costco?!

They'd probably have a lot to talk about.

It's the path from that kind of idle imagination and curiosity to making assumptions and value judgments about a person's life - and what makes them who they are - where we do damage.

We look because we want to know. And, probably more often than we realize, we want to look upon possibilities within our human experience and be silently grateful that we don't have that burden - whatever it is seen to be - to carry.

When a parent yanks a small boy by the arm and scolds him with "Don't look!" because he is openly looking at my prosthesis, that child has learned that differences are to be feared and curiosity punished.

When that happens, my instinct is to go over to the parent, explain that it's OK to look and we all have questions, that my leg and I aren't scary. But I usually don't. The adult is often embarrassed by the child's open curiosity and clearly wants the uncomfortable reality to go away.

I wish I had a quick answer. I don't want to be a little boy's painful lesson.

The answer, I do know, isn't to ignore each other, to turn each other into objects and pretend our differences don't exist.

Of course they do. But the challenges we've faced, the struggles we've grieved and happiness we've celebrated aren't inextricably tied to our outward selves.

Because we are, in so many ways, each so much more than we give each other credit for being.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears Thursdays. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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