My sister Meg may have had to struggle for much of her life to come to terms with her physical differences. When we were growing up, however, I was often unaware of what she was going through, and generally I just saw those differences as being uniquely hers, and a part of who she is.
As a matter of fact, I always thought her hands and feet were cute. We had names for them, and they actually had a lot of personality. Like any kid I had various toys and stuffed animals, legos and so forth, but none of those things were as entertaining as the elaborate stories and plays Meg and I would act out with our hands as characters. As I recall, my fingers never had particularly distinct personalities, they usually played various bit-parts, while her extroverted characters were the center of the drama. We had a lot of fun really.
And it’s not as if she ever struggled to accomplish something that would’ve required me or my brother to help her out. She just did some things differently. She could tie her shoelaces. Her handwriting was always a lot better than mine. These are things that no one else could have taught her, she had to figure out how to do them. Later I would come to appreciate just how tenacious and perseverant Meg really is.
Except for a period when our family lived abroad, we lived in the university town of Urbana, Illinois, a 2 1/2 hour drive south of Chicago. Perhaps the first time that I became aware of the difficulties Meg faced was when we made a family trip up to the big city. I wasn’t aware of the reason why until we showed up at a very unpleasant place — I don’t remember if it was a factory, but it had an unsettling industrial feeling, and I remember my sister was upset. This is where she was fitted for the orthopedic shoes which she would come to despise. These brown leather shoes were not made to flatter the wearer, in fact they looked like they were designed for baby elephants to go bowling in. They had thick soles and were quite heavy — potentially deadly if thrown, which she did a couple of times when hard pressed (like any siblings, Meg, our brother and I had our share of quarrels!).
Junior high school is a challenging social dynamic for anyone, so it’s not hard to imagine the issues my sister would face if she continued to wear the terrible shoes she bitterly complained about but was told she must wear, lest she injure her feet. But Meg would not be deterred, and I remember how happy she seemed when she came home one day with a new pair of shoes that looked just like everyone else’s. Sure they fit differently, but they worked just fine. She must have learned to be thrifty, as she had to save up the money to buy them herself. The effect on her confidence was palpable.
My brother and sister became counselors at the same summer arts camp in Traverse City, Michigan, where I was a camper. It was there that I saw Meg as more than an older sister — but as the role model that she seemed to have become with the cabin of campers under her supervision. She had a great rapport with these girls, and I could see that some of the girls really looked up to her for support and advice.
Other than noticing stares from others when they first encountered her, I really don’t recall people treating her as someone to be feared or pitied. I’m sure it happened — like when we lived in the Middle East, where we found ourselves in societies where people with these sorts of differences are marginalized. But overall it’s worth noting how quickly people move beyond seeing Meg only in terms of her physical differences — I believe this is because she goes out of her way to be friendly and talk to people she encounters, and thereby sets the terms on which the interaction proceeds. If she were to act withdrawn and reserved, as many would expect her to, it would be different.
And that’s why her idea of ‘flaunting it’ makes perfect sense. If you feel insecure about something, it’s easy for others to read this vulnerability before you even say something. And then you’ve been pre-judged and have to struggle to overcome being defined by this initial interaction rather than by your own character. People don’t know better before they know you. Especially if you have a physical difference, you have to actively make the move to inform the other person about who you really are.
Looking at my sister’s successes despite the difficulties she has faced, at her family and all the wonderful people who have made themselves part of her life, I think she must be on to something. Not everyone can be as gregarious as my sister Meg, and just walk up to strangers to introduce themselves (I certainly don’t!). But we don’t need to do that. Just by having the confidence not to hide what can’t be hidden, by working with it, by bringing it out and owning it, our limitations become our strengths.
It’s up to you to show people who you are, and you should be no more hung up on your particular issue than you want anyone else to be. Whether your challenge is physical or otherwise, everyone needs to figure out how to persevere and move beyond it. If others can’t handle it, it’s their problem; it doesn’t need to be yours. That’s what I take away from my sister’s example. Go Meg!