I was completely pumped. It was my first day, and I was so happy to be starting my new job. The reputation of the company was stellar and the road to get the competitive position hadn’t been easy. Someone in my new group walked me around, from office to office, introducing me to various legal and compliance officers in the department. “C’mon, Meg! Let’s meet Sabrina! You’ll love her.” As we walked into her office, I saw a striking woman with straight, dark hair who appeared to me about five years my senior. Sabrina saw us in the entryway to her office, and offered a warm smile and wave of her hand. “Hi! Welcome to the Firm. Please, come in.” I smiled, gratefully, and as Sabrina extended her hand to shake mine, I thrust my one-fingered hand confidently in her direction. In that moment she let out an audible gasp and jumped back confused. “Nice to meet you,” I responded awkwardly.
I was completely pumped. John’s firm was having a special, black-tie event. Only spouses were invited but because I was his fiancé, John had them make an exception so I could come along. Although I loved my gorgeous red dress, and made sure that my make-up was applied picture perfect, I knew my shoes hardly matched my outfit. But somehow, as I entered the room holding John’s hand, the music both charged and distracted me from my fashion limitations. “There he is.” I looked over and knew from past descriptions that it was Michael, someone very senior in John’s office. “Hi there,” I smiled warmly at Mike and the woman next to him that I assumed was his wife. He replied, “Nice to finally meet you, Meg.” As Mike stuck out his hand to shake mine, he continued, “We have heard so many wonderful things about you from John.” I blushed and extended my hand. “Oh!” he blurted out, as his hand touched mine and pulled back swiftly. The reddish hue on his face had instantly matched mine. “Nice to meet you,” I responded awkwardly.
A few years after Sabrina jumped back at the sight and touch of my hand, I was happy to hear that she had gotten pregnant. But when her first-born baby boy arrived, I had heard from colleagues at our Firm that he had been born with webbed fingers and toes. As a result, Sabrina was out of work for months beyond her maternity leave, as she and her husband had flown to a special hospital that could operate to separate his fingers and toes where possible. I have to admit something. It’s going to sound pretty horrible. In my mind at the time, I actually had a fleeting thought. I wondered whether Sabrina’s son’s birth difference was a form of karma related to her reaction to me? I momentarily speculated that perhaps the sting of her reaction to me had come back to bite her.
I am not proud of that little mental diversion, nor did it last for more than an instant, but I think it provides insight into how a stranger’s extreme reaction to my very differently-shaped hands had impacted me so significantly and emotionally at the time. Let’s face it. Someone jumping back at the very look or feel of you can feel incredibly humiliating. Of course, people’s reactions may vary. But the real question is not whether someone deserves karmic revenge. They of course don’t. To me the question is whether when someone (an adult) jumps back at something unexpected, is it is a reflection of their own personal insecurities and unease with themselves? Conversely, is it fair to say that those adults that unexpectedly grab my hand and shake it warmly, as if to overtly state that a one-fingered person to them is just as normal as anyone else, are reflecting a strong inner contentment and joy?
I raised this on my Don’t Hide It Flaunt It Facebook page, and within minutes, the comments lit up my page like the Fourth of July. As expected, the reactions varied. For example, one person wrote, “I don’t think it has anything to do with being appalled or disgusted. I believe it is the unexpected that startles, that’s all!” Another thought another person’s jumping back reflected insecurity. Yet another described that on the first handshake, she would be more concerned about maneuvering a proper handshake with someone born like me. “You know your hand better than me…I need to try it once, and then I’ll know I got it right and comfortable for both of us. Autopilot after that!”
So what do I think? Weirdly enough, I think my answer comes more from my own past when I could actually relate to the people jolted by difference. Before I was out flaunting, I was hiding–hiding my hands in my pockets, in photos, etc., but that was the least of it. I was the woman who would never date anyone that was not physically perfect. After all, to associate myself with imperfection could only serve to reflect back on my own. I was the woman who greatly feared having children born with ectrodactyly, my condition. What would one day turn out to be my greatest gift was initially, the biggest shock of my life. When I saw that first sonogram of my unborn child, I imagine I jumped back. And so, how did I relate to difference in others back then? Not well.
Although I can only draw upon my own experience, I actually do think there just might be some validity to my assumption that if someone jumps back at a mere handshake, it may be more of a reflection of them and their own insecurities than really having anything to do with me. If there is some truth to my opinion, then for those of us who live our lives looking blatantly different than the majority, the best way forward is to flaunt who we are, and manage these extreme reactions but not absorb them. My favorite comments on my DHIFI Facebook page were when people provided stories of putting that shocked person at ease, despite their reaction. It’s better to be a teacher than a victim.
The other conclusion that seems self-evident and ironic is that no matter our exterior, no matter our own personal experience, on the inside we’re all traveling the same long road to self-acceptance anyway.