Wednesday, September 5, 2007

I stared at a guy's hook and I feel terrible!

Dear HTT,

This might just be too offensive or politically incorrect to address, but I think this might be an issue for others and I'm hoping that asking this question (semi) publicly might make us all feel a little better.

Last weekend, as I was approaching the door to enter a restaurant, a couple with small child was coming out. I reached out to catch the door as the man held it open for me when I noticed (not too subtly I'm sure) that he had a prosthetic hand. More specifically, a hook. Now, I'm an adult with good manners and I'm a healthcare professional. I know it is rude to stare. But you know how people who survive a car crash describe the whole thing as seeming to last for several minutes when in reality it only lasted a couple of seconds? That's how it felt for me. Here's how it went: I look at the hook, my mind processes, "Is that a hook? Hmmm... That is a hook. I knew someone with a hook once, I wonder what ever happened to Syd... Oh my god. I think I'm staring, did he notice?" I glance up, make immediate, accidental and very uncomfortable eye contact then say, with a pitiful look (as in with "a look full of pity"), "Hey... How are you?" He smiles back and nods and we keep going our separate ways. Basically I got busted staring at a guy with a hook.

Uhhggghhh! I have thought about those few seconds and winced with embarrassment countless times since it happened. I'm trying to figure out why it was so awkward and why I still feel so guilty. Is it as simple as seeing something outside the norm and my brain taking a few extra seconds to process? Isn't it normal to take few extra seconds to process what you're not accustomed to seeing? It's not as though there was any judgment involved or fear or revulsion. But what if he thought there was? Am I just an insensitive clod? Isn't honest curiosity or extra processing allowed? What do you think?


Dear Red-faced,

You are not an insensitive clod. The fact that you’ve written this letter, the fact that you’re still cringing with embarrassment days after this incident, these things tell me that you are not a boor.

Yes, I do think the brain does a little hiccup of sorts when faced with something visually jarring. And unless one comes into regular contact with someone who has a similar prosthesis, a hook in the place of a hand will strike most of us as unusual. It is, in fact, not usual. So your description of your thought process makes perfect sense to me. Your brain is a wonderful thing! Even though it felt like minutes, your brain needed just a few extra microseconds to make sense of the hook. It then helpfully fired up some synapses and pulled out a memory of someone you know who also has one, thereby attempting to normalize that which is not normal in your day-to-day life.

Having established that your reaction is probably pretty typical, let’s talk about why you feel so badly about it. I think shame rears its head if we believe we’ve been caught in the act of pitying, not simply looking. Plus, as you allude to, we’ve had it drummed into our heads that staring is rude—and that staring at someone with a disability is super rude. So with all this conditioning, your tiny slip-up felt enormous, which only made your interaction all the more uncomfortable. Imagine if you hadn’t instantaneously felt like you’d broken a social taboo, done the unthinkable…maybe you’d have stared at his hook for a moment, then simply looked up and smiled.

A quick side story: I have a friend—I’ll call her Jane—who used to live in New York City. Every day, she faced a long subway commute. She hated it. She grew more embittered with each trek. She hated the smell, the noise, the heat, rude people pushing and shoving. Most of all she hated people who did not follow the cardinal rule of escalators: you can stand on the right, but you must walk on the left. One day, in a hurry to catch the train, she got caught behind a woman planted on the left side of the down escalator. The more Jane huffed and muttered, the more this woman clung steadfastly to the handrail. Finally, Jane found an opportunity to pass on the right. As she did, she flashed the woman a look that could kill, which then prompted the woman to cry out, “I can’t help it that I only have one arm.” And she did. A left one. You know what my friend did? She laughed! At herself, at the situation, at her mistake. Then she apologized for being rude, but no more profusely than she would have to anyone else she might have sassed on her flight down the escalator stairs. The woman accepted, and my friend dashed off for the train. End of story, no lasting guilt or trauma.

My point is not that we should laugh at the disabled. I am not advocating gawking at people with hooks. We should do our best not to be rude to anyone, but don’t assume that the disabled are more delicate in the self-esteem department than the rest of us.

You’re human. Forgive yourself. It sounds as if he did. He smiled at you, said hello, and moved on.

Thanks for writing!