Within an hour, the initial stress on my mind would seem ridiculous. It was the end of October, and I woke up early wondering what costume Ethan, our six-year-old and oldest of three would wear for his all-school Halloween Parade. Already his experience at his new school started out rough, having been bullied by 4th grade boys on the playground the prior month. Although that experience was behind us and things seemed to have quieted down, I remained sensitive and internally queasy at the thought of his parading himself around among all other kids at the school.
With my husband John and children still asleep I needed a distraction and crept quietly into our home office to read the news online. The breaking news sent my stomach to the floor. I began to quiver. A massive 6.4 magnitude earthquake had hit the northern area of Pakistan, followed by an equally strong aftershock. The quake’s epicenter was 70 miles north of Quetta. Hundreds had already been confirmed dead, with hundreds more injured, according to Mohammed Zaman, assistant to the Balochistan (regional) chief secretary.
While most people I knew wouldn’t be as rattled by an earthquake half-way across the world, I was personally affected. Just a few days before, my dad had sent me his typical email reminding me and my brothers of his trip to Pakistan, with a planned visit in particular with the Chief Minister of the Northwest Frontier Province. As usual, I glanced briefly at the message and before filing it, noting the list of contacts and numbers in Pakistan in case of an emergency at home. My mind flashed to thoughts of life growing up with my father. He and my mother had raised me with unconditional support, to be fiercely independent. But beyond anything he could teach me, from the moment I came out with my one finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one toe on each foot, my father showed an innate ability to react to even the most shocking and stressful situations with calm. Among all the positive things I could say about him, this was arguably his most admirable trait.
“Mommy, I’m hungry!” In that moment, always my early riser, four-year-old Charlie walked in the room. I grabbed him and hugged him tightly, knowing that whatever the outcome of the day’s news, I needed to prioritize my children, just as my parents did before me.
This past week I had the privilege of being the featured speaker at my firm’s International Women’s Day event. Typically when I present at any job-related event the discussion focuses on my chosen professional field, anti-money laundering. However, for this presentation I was asked to speak about Don’t Hide It Flaunt It and my global campaign to celebrate difference and build a more inclusive society. Preparing for my presentation over the weekend, I began to search for potential topics that might be of particular interest to my colleagues. Perhaps because the Oscars were still in the news along with the #AskHerMore campaign to ensure the red carpet conversation expanded beyond what designer an actress was wearing, I quickly came across comedienne Amy Poehler’s effort called “Smart Girls.” What began as a web series, Smart Girls quickly morphed into a dynamic online community encouraging girls to “Change the World By Being Yourself.”
As I prepared my remarks, I couldn’t get the Smart Girls tag line out of my mind. It sounded great, but I wanted to make it personal to my unique experience. During my presentation, I provided candid insight what it was like not only growing up with a physical difference, but also parenting children who shared my condition. I also revisited my own professional career development and how learning to be “myself” had been crucial to my own success.
Afterwards, during the Question & Answer period, one person asked, “You mentioned that as a young child people in the foreign countries where you lived not only stared but even homeless people pitied you. How did you get through it? How did you keep so positive and resilient under the circumstances and not fall easily into an understandable place of stress and despair?”
I paused for a moment, reflecting on a New York Times article written by Richard Friedman called, “The Feel-Good Gene” that I had just read over the weekend. Friedman wrote, “For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that a genetic variation in the brain makes some people inherently less anxious, and more able to forget fearful and unpleasant experiences. This lucky genetic mutation produces higher levels of anandamide — the so-called bliss molecule and our own natural marijuana — in our brains. In short, some people are prone to be less anxious simply because they won the genetic sweepstakes and randomly got a genetic mutation that has nothing at all to do with strength of character.”
“Ah, glad you asked. Although it may be hard for any of you to believe, I feel I have been genetically gifted in many ways, including my physical difference because it was the catalyst for making me the strong woman I have become. But I must admit, I think I also had some additional genetic help from my father, from whom I’ve been able to inherit the natural ability to not only have a glass-half-full, positive attitude, but to brush off harsh experiences in my life as something to learn from, rather than reasons to be anxious about myself or my capabilities.
I concluded my speech by offering a final thought, that as much as I liked the Smart Girls motto, I thought it needed one important tweak. I looked around the room, smiled as I spoke. “Realistically, I think if we are lucky, we are able to come to a place of self-acceptance, and perhaps genes have a lot to do with it. But most importantly, I think most of us should start out with prioritizing our own attitude about self-acceptance before worrying about whether we can change the entire world. In that regard, I think the better tag line would be a change of one word: “Change Your World By Being Yourself.” If you can accomplish that, then changing the rest of the world just might follow.
After giving Charlie his breakfast and I had some java running through my veins, I remembered that my father had sent me the list of contact names and numbers. I tried working through the list but with each different try, I either couldn’t connect or the number didn’t seem to be working. The last name on the list was the Chief Minister’s name and number, and so with nothing to lose, I dialed it. A long pause followed, and then four long rings. I was in total despair, but just as I was about to hang-up, a male voice answered. “Assalaam-o-Alaikum.” I hesitated, but then spoke slowly, in the hope he understood English. “My name is Meg Weinbaum Zucker. We just saw the news about the earthquake in Pakistan. I am wondering if you know if my father, Marvin Weinbaum is okay?’ He paused for what felt like an hour, and I held my breath. In broken yet decent English, he responded. “Ah, ha-llo. We are in Peshawar. Mr. Weinbaum is fine. He’s right here next to me.” I waited as I could hear him passing his cell phone to my father. “Meg?” I began to cry at the sound of his voice. “Dad, what happened? Are you okay?” He responded quickly and given the circumstances, astonishingly calmly. “I am fine.” I exhaled audibly. “Things are devastated from the quake all around here though….but you’ll never believe what happened. The Chief Minister and some of his staff had decided to take me up in a helicopter to tour a tribal area in the Northern part of Pakistan. The earthquake hit when we were in the air.”