When I was six years old, my family and I visited my uncle and aunt at their home in New Hampshire. We’d taken a road trip to New England, and it was October, so the trees were turning and the air was cooler—and the sky took on a color as though it wanted to change soon. It was gray, but sunlight glowed faintly behind thin spots in the clouds.
I knew before our visit that my uncle was deaf. But when I heard him talking with my father, I couldn’t get over how different he sounded; I could barely understand him. His words were milky-toned and full, and sometimes he had to repeat himself three times just to be understood. Admittedly, I was a little afraid of him. But over the years, and after many conversations, I’ve come to consider this uncle one of the bravest, most sensitive people I know.
Though I cannot fully sympathize with him—he’s been deaf his whole life, and I have always been hearing—I get what it feels like to not be understood by the people you know and look up to.
As a teen in both middle and high school, I felt extreme pressure to succeed at sports because, frankly, my father wanted me to. I played basketball, ran track, played volleyball in middle school, and eventually played tennis in high school. I was a very, very tall girl: by the ninth grade I was six-foot-zero. My mother was telling me I shouldn’t date yet, but my father told me the guys would be chasing me “in no time.” He was also telling me to go pump iron in the weight room.
I was a very confused young woman.
I felt different when I compared myself to my peers; I never knew what it was like to be chased after a guy who was taller than me, though it seemed like every other girl had. (I was comparing myself to the people I wanted most to please—the girls on my sports teams, most of whom were well liked, outgoing, and social. But that just wasn’t me.) If I’m honest with myself, I have to wonder if I still don’t hold a grudge against all those old high school teammates (and against the guys, for always just going for the shorter girls). They never understood. And of course, in my just-wanna-fit-in despondency, it seemed to me as though no one tried to understand. I hated that. I wanted people to “get” me.
Now I can see that if I never let go of that grudge, bitterness will eat away at my heart. And I’ll never be able to move past feeling different. I can’t change my circumstances, but I can change my heart.
How I deal with “The Other” is more of a heart issue than a mind issue. Yes, I must grapple with the knowledge of who is the other: Whom do I discriminate against? Whom do I exclude from my social circles? Whom am I judging? Whom am I avoiding because they’re different? I need to consciously recognize the experiences of others so I don’t go around shouting WOE IS ME, and MY LIFE SUCKS. To recognize those on the margins is the first step to greater understanding and communication. Heck, I might even make some new friends.
Once I have seen and acknowledged The Other, it’s my heart that must do the hard work: the work of reaching out, trying to understand, and sharing my own experiences so I can build peace and forgiveness.
In college, I wrote an essay about my uncle’s experience as a deaf man in a hearing world. He explained to me the difference between the Deaf community (with a capital D), and those people who are deaf (with a lowercase d). A Deaf person self-identifies as part of the Deaf community. But people who are simply “deaf” are trying to make their way in the world of the hearing; they accept their handicap and try to make the best of it. My uncle is one of the latter.
To prepare the essay, I had a conversation with my uncle via a video translator, over a telephone. The translator was signing my questions and comments to my uncle on a screen, and when he responded the translator related his words back to me. Before this conversation, I’d had no idea of the distinction between Deaf and deaf. My uncle suddenly became braver, kinder, more human to me. He’d struggled to make his way in a world of people who were just the slightest bit different. He’d struggled, but he’d also succeeded.
Having just that one conversation changed everything between my uncle and me. In the following years, I met up with him out west, where by then he lived, and at dinner we now elect to talk rather than just making eyebrow motions across the table.
I do not pity my uncle; I sympathize with him. People often identify me by my height—I am “that tall woman,” not just “that kind woman,” or “that happy woman.” And sometimes the “Tall Girl/Tall Woman” label just gets really, really old. As old as “Deaf Man” would get, I imagine.
Likewise, my uncle is not a Deaf Man, but rather a man who happens to be deaf. The distinction is important. How we talk about people makes a world of difference. Jesus taught his followers to love everyone, not just with their actions but with words. When we open our hearts to The Other, trying to sympathize with those people who may be different from us, we are opening ourselves to goodness, to letting God’s light through the clouds of our misunderstandings.