Lately I have been asking myself why my own daughters’ behavior is evoking certain visceral and emotional responses in me. It was difficult to admit, but I realized that I am facing a lifetime of my own prejudices, stereotypes and judgments about others by the way I am reacting to my own children – not by what I overtly say aloud, but by how I am feeling inside and certain cognitive experiences, as well.
I think most of us would tend to say that we’re fairly confident in our ability to be “tolerant” (a word I increasingly dislike) of people’s differences and that we have modified perhaps what we learned from our upbringing to be more “inclusive” and “fair” about people with whom we disagree or don’t understand. This, of course, can include an array of differences, ranging from socioeconomic status to sexual orientation to political affiliation or religious beliefs, even to race, age, gender, and various physical or cognitive differences. But the truth of the matter is that all of us carry prejudices within our hearts; it’s just that we don’t always voice them and aren’t completely consciously aware of their manifestations in our thoughts, attitudes, feelings and behaviors.
We live in a society that continues to enforce unconditional acceptance of everything and everyone to the point in which we are meant to feel guilty, ashamed and incredibly “-ist” in some way if we have negative feelings or unresolved attitudes toward people who are different from us. The “-ists” of which I speak include racism, sexism, conservatism, chauvinism, liberalism, absolutism, theism, etc. So we often go about our days convincing ourselves of the delusion that we are part of the “tolerant” paucity in our society; we don’t tend to confront ourselves too often or honestly to admit this error.
I am admitting my prejudices here, today. I am doing this not out of a trifling attempt at humility, nor do I think of myself as superior to others by openly acknowledging my weaknesses. Quite simply, I feel this topic has become relevant to my overall blog and to my own personal, spiritual journey, and it is my hope that this type of authenticity may, in turn, permit the reader to challenge his/her own narrow-mindedness at times.
When Sarah was first born, I internalized intense emotions of guilt and self-condemnation when I acknowledged certain thoughts that would come to mind, such as, “I don’t want a child who has a disability” or “What if I can’t accept what she looks like?” “What if people look down on our family?” “I can’t handle a cognitive impairment, because I don’t know how to relate to someone who might not be able to communicate with me.” There were many more thoughts, but this gives the reader a general idea of where I’m going with this. I abhorred myself for thinking these things, because I had always presumed that I was a very accepting person and that I didn’t judge people’s differences. Now that God had given me a child of my own with a rare chromosomal anomaly, all I could do was ask Him to take it back, take it away and make things “normal” again.
But every time I would look into Sarah’s sweet, innocent and loving eyes, I would cry – not because I was angry or sad, but rather because I was softened by her love. And it was apparent that Sarah was just Sarah; she was a little person. To her, she was normal. She didn’t know life any other way than by the way in which she entered this world. Though her hands looked like mittens, they were comfortable and easy to her – not bizarre and detestable. Unlike me, Sarah had not be tainted or jaded by the vicissitudes of life yet, and I saw myself much more honestly when I looked into her eyes.
At first, I panicked, because I couldn’t imagine that I could be such a person! But as the days went by and I brought my fears, anxieties, and self-reproach to the Lord in prayer and Sacrament, my heart began to heal and see things differently. It was then I began to see other stereotypes I had internalized based upon my experiences with Lissie.
Although Lissie doesn’t have any physical differences, she has something called Sensory Processing Disorder. When she was initially diagnosed, I grieved. This was long before Sarah was even a twinkle in our eyes. But I couldn’t imagine having a child with special needs. I didn’t want to have a child with special needs, who needed extra help in learning ordinary tasks, such as using a straw or dressing herself or jumping and playing on playground equipment. Why couldn’t things just be normal?
And after Sarah was born and I made this connection with how I viewed both of my daughters, I saw for the first time how I must have viewed other people who were like both of them, though I dared to never overtly say so. It was too ironic for a former high school counselor who worked closely with children who suffered from learning disabilities, physical differences, and cognitive impairments to hope for and assume that my own children wouldn’t have these same struggles in life. At the outset, I tried to rationalize that this was due to the fact that I saw what kinds of adversities, obstacles, admonishment, and ostracizing these types of children experienced at school and in the wider society. I justified these reasons, adding to myself that I was only trying to protect them and spare them from such a life.
But the raw truth of the matter is that I was just a selfish, cowardly, timid young woman. I was (and still am in many ways) proud. Despite the many times I kicked and screamed inside my head and heart like a toddler, regardless of how often I tried to bargain and plead with God, I was only met with myself and with silence. The truth spoke volumes to me.
And that truth was that God wanted me to learn a harsh reality – that I, like every person walking this earth, have been carrying assumptions, internal messages and presuppositions about everyone with whom I came into contact – although I rarely consciously endorsed this truth. Now that God had blessed me with two little girls who had very different challenges, I had to face this and take this ugly mess to God every day and ask for forgiveness and healing. I wanted to change.
I cannot say I have perfectly accomplished true unconditional acceptance and love of all people. I still catch myself with negative judgments about others, especially when they are voicing their views that negate my own or even insult my own religious beliefs specifically. But the difference is twofold. One, I’ve discovered that I am much more cognizant of these attitudes and thoughts and thus can more readily and frequently work on them in my interior life. And two, when I play and interact with my two girls, my heart is always softened by their innocence and purity. I am able to see past the labels that we all acquire through society’s conditioning, and they are no longer a label but simply, beautifully, profoundly a person of dignity, value and incredible worth.
So I ask you, what are your prejudices? What is it that you pride yourself in being tolerant of, only to find yourself angry when someone challenges your set of beliefs and values? Whom do you judge when you walk down the street or walk into church? Do you see the exterior of people like I so often do – their appearance, their body shape, whether or not they are unkempt and unruly, their hygiene. Do you find people who are inarticulate or celebrate different lifestyles than you do repugnant? I have. But now I am trying to give these attitudes to God. In turn, He is changing my heart. I pray He will change yours, as well.