Hello Nicole – May 2001

Dear Nicole, I always end up having people tell me “God bless you”! What am I supposed to say to […]

Dear Nicole,

I always end up having people tell me “God bless you”! What am I supposed to say to that? Oh, I know they’re trying to be nice. But I don’t like complete  strangers saying it as I pass by on the street. They don’t know me. Why should I need any more blessings than anybody else? God has blessed me greatly.  I guess it’s not the comments themselves that bother me as much as being singled out. Of all the people passing by, they feel they need to say something to me. I don’t like being seen as “the person in the wheelchair.” I  just want to be Me.  I’m only 16 years old and my mom would kill me if I didn’t act all fake and smiley like she does to the rudest, stupidest people.

Sincerely,
Get Real

Dear Real,

The reason these encounters are frustrating is because you have been singled out with the implication that something is “wrong” with you.  These people do not see You but your disability, which for them is so dreadful that it obscures your very personhood.  I think your feelings of anger are not only justified but healthy!  Although people who bestow these “blessings” mean well, the reason it bothers you (and me too!) is because underneath the smiles and nice words you feel the truly negative influence of their pity. 

Pity is a tricky emotion, often mistaken for it’s opposite: compassion.  Compassion is a selfless desire to help, motivated by a feeling of love, comradeship, equality and connection with others.  People who are compassionate think in terms of: “how would I want to be treated? ”  For this reason, people who are compassionate toward the disabled life are often ardent supporters of our civil and human rights. 

Conversely, pity is a selfish emotion motivated by fear and the desire to protect oneself from the hardships of others.  People feeling pity often unconsciously see themselves as better than those they are pitying; this sense of superiority creates a feeling of invulnerability to the suffering they imagine others endure. Any “kindness” bestowed out of pity only adds more condescension by increasing the do-gooder’s superiority for being so kind to a lesser human being. There is a real multidimensional  element of insult when someone pities us. Yet, it is such a confusing emotion because so much of the negativity is hidden or unconscious that a pitied person can be left wondering why they feel angry rather than grateful toward the “well-meaning” person.

I think pity may be one of the most deeply oppressive influences on people with disabilities.  Throughout history, pity has been such a prevalent response to disability that many people still do not support or take seriously our equal and civil rights. Likewise, pity is so underhanded that some of us who have been pitied our whole lives begin to believe the underlying message that there is something wrong with us. We may not feel secure advocating for ourselves because deep within we feel uncomfortable with the idea that we are deserving or capable of truly equal opportunities in life.  I think this accounts for much of the reason that people with disabilities are the largest minority group in America, and yet the most unheard and underrepresented.

So what should we say to people who show us their pity?  The natural and even healthy response is to reply with anger.  I certainly would not oppose anyone who responded to pity with an angry or insulting comment.  I find it much more disturbing when pity is responded to with the socially-expected gratitude.  If we go along with pity without somehow pointing out that it is ridiculous and false, we are encouraging our own oppression.  It’s really important that we learn to hold our ground and assert our equality.  If you need to do this by saying, “Take a flying leap, you *%&!” so be it!  But since you are under the watchfulness of your mother for a few more years, you might want to try another approach: compassion.

Even though pity is annoying , most likely the strangers who approach you honestly feel sad that you are disabled, and their blessings are the only way they know how to show their concern.  We can start to cultivate our own compassion by asking, “If I were making the mistake of accosting people with pity on the street, how would I want someone to try and point this out to me?”  Every situation may call for a different response.  It’s not so important what you say but that your attitude conveys that you don’t accept pity. With self-assured power you can bypass their pity, look them in the eye, and as one human being to another, simply wish them well as they continue on their way.

Nicole

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