You’re at the mall early Sunday afternoon, looking for ballet flats to replace your pair that is falling apart. It’s not your favorite place in the world, but it’s not horrible. You’re there early enough that it’s not crowded, and your fellow shoppers seem to be enjoying the day off work, so the atmosphere is pleasant enough. You’ve found your shoes and picked up a black and white polka dotted dress that you don’t need, but might look cute enough to take on your trip next weekend.
Then a woman walks up to you. She has that typical young suburban mom look: jean jacket, expensive jeans, dusty blonde hair with highlights, pretty, with just enough makeup to hide the first signs of age, but not too much that it’s not flattering. She says excuse me, and you wonder if you dropped something. You smile.
She gives you a big grin, moves in a little too close to you and does that weird hoppy thing that high school girls do when they find out that their best friend has been asked out by a football player. Excited, happy and overly insincere. You mentally brace yourself for a question about where you got your jeans or advice that your shoes just aren’t quite right for your outfit (you knew this already, but that’s why you’re getting new shoes).
Instead she says “Can I pray for you and your disability?”
You freeze and stare at her, forgetting what your line is. Luckily your brain can do this on autopilot “No, you may not.” you say, then as she opens her mouth to respond you add “Please get away from me.” You’re not sure where the please came from, but file it away anyway. The woman responds “Well, God bless you” tosses her hair and walks off.
You’re still frozen. Suddenly, the years of building up your body and your psyche fall away and you’re that strange preteen on crutches, the one who has to hide before school because the bullies will knock her down if she ventures out into the hallway. The one who has every step from the front entrance to the band room memorized (300 of them. Step, hop, step, hop… you count because it’s easier to count how many steps you’ve taken than to look up and see what kind of pain you’re in for.) The director lets you sit in there and hide while he keeps out the bullies.
Now, you can barely see through the haze of your differences. You logically know that most of the people in the store don’t care enough to look, and if they do, you’re a momentary curiosity to them, but suddenly you’re other, in a way that feels very vulnerable, very exposed. All of these other people, they’re normal. You’re not one of them. How could you ever have thought that you were?
Fifteen seconds ago you were normal, just one of hundreds of shoppers out on a rainy morning. You were completely, comfortingly anonymous. You were whole with all of the traits you’ve worked so hard over the years. The pains, the insecurities, the things you’re embarrassed about, they were all hidden, inside a somewhat pretty girl shopping for dresses. You weren’t thinking about the way you walk because honestly, most of the time, you don’t. It’s not that bad. There’s no pain accompanying it, now that you’ve slowly worked up to the point that you can maintain a decent level of exercise. The only things that really remind you of it are the weakness running up the outside of your leg where there should be a muscle taking up the slack, and occasional questions from friends or small children who are curious.
These reminders don’t bother you. You’re always happy to explain the things that are different about you: an honest question is a chance for honest understanding. Plus, it entertains you how embarrassed parents are when their kids ask a question like that. The weakness only matters when you’re trying to pull two very specific moves when climbing, and you’ve learned to climb around most routes that require that move.
However, the request to pray for you does hurt, in a way that anyone who has never been abnormal can’t understand. The request hurts because it is not only a statement that you are different, which is okay, but a statement that you are different in a way that needs to be fixed. It is a presumption that removes all strength from you and puts it into the hands of this healthy, perky, privileged woman.
You’re not just hurt for yourself, because you know that at the end of the day your limp doesn’t impact your daily life in any way. You’re angry for your friends, who have much more difficult challenges they’ve overcome. You’re angry for the children of your friends, who have challenges that they will have to overcome. This woman, and the women like her who make this request of you every two months anger you because you know that she will ask these people you love, these wonderful, strong, able, whole people, if they mind if she tries to fix them.
Because none of you need fixing. When someone asks to pray for you, a stranger, they are saying “you are less than me” “you are not good enough to fix yourself, so you must need my condescension”. Make no mistake, that is what they’re saying. They have good intentions, yes, but you don’t say to someone who you think is on your level that you want to make them better. You don’t single them out as someone in need of charity. You ask them what their needs are. You ask them what their experience is. You try to understand.
Please, let your child ask me questions. Let them say that I walk funny and ask why. Because then I can kneel down next to them, explain that because of a brilliant surgeon and supportive hospital, I have a body that works. I can direct them to look at the positives of my experience rather than the negatives. I can ask them to focus on who I am and who I’ve worked to be, as a woman, a scientist, an educator, rather than focusing on my hindrances.
Then, maybe, the next person they talk to, they might think “hey, this person is strong”, “this person is like me”, this person has worked hard to be where they are, and they don’t see their physical or mental limitations as things to be fixed by outsiders, but rather something that is part and parcel of who they are. And maybe, just maybe, they won’t be the kind of person who goes around trying to fix people who don’t want or need it.
Or maybe they’ll grow up to be an orthopedic surgeon and fix me in the way I do need it, when I come to them asking for help. Either outcome is worthwhile to me.