I’m sorry and other judgements

“I’m sorry,” is one of those phrases that can mean many things, and is often used as a catch-all for everything from, “what did you say?” when you misheard something, to “excuse me,” when you bump into someone, to “drop dead,” when you have been accused of something for which you should be apologetic, and are anything but. Seldom do the words “I’m sorry” express genuine contrition. Sometimes, the words “I’m sorry” are used as a way to pass a subtle judgement about the quality of our lives.

How many times have you needed to disclose your blindness in the context of facilitating assistance, only to hear: “Oh…I’m sorry.” For me, it’s been countless times. If, when explaining to a customer service representative over the phone that I cannot read them the product serial number because I am blind, they will respond with an embarrassed, “Oh, I’m sorry.” If I explain to the technical support person that I’m unable to click the green button at the bottom of the page because I cannot see the green button, I’m answered by, “Oh, I’m sorry.” When the counter clerk in a retail establishment, who hasn’t bothered to look at me when I ask for help finding something, waves a hand and says, “it’s over there,” and I must explain I need additional details because I’m blind, they will look up, and awkwardly mutter, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Of course, some of these apologies may be a sincere mea culpa for inconsideration, but often I find it’s an automatic response from people who otherwise do not know what to say. When speaking to someone over the phone, for example, and getting the “I’m sorry” response after disclosing my blindness, I often say, “why are you sorry? How were you supposed to know I’m blind.” After all, it’s not as though they can see me, either. Why is an apology necessary? They are not clairvoyant. Apologizing in this context makes about as much sense as saying to a caller, “Oh, I’m sorry you’re six foot two.”

Then there are those who take it one step further, even when in person. When I ask, “why are you sorry?” some have actually responded by saying they were sorry I am blind. Or, they’ll say something like, “it’s just such a shame. You’re so pretty.” or, “it’s just such a shame. It must be awful. I feel sorry for you.” Or, they’ll resort to the inevitable stories of known others with my “affliction,” or they ply me with flattery for what amounts to misplaced inspiration and undeserved admiration.

In an effort to give most people the benefit of the doubt, I recognize that often there is no intent of harm, and in my experience, I think most people really want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. On the days I feel like crowning myself the poster child for blindness, I gently and patiently educate. On the days when I’m feeling no such patience, I’ll pop off with something like, “I suggest you save your energy.”

As I have lived my entire life with vision loss, to a greater or lesser degree, thanks to the degenerative nature of Retinitis Pigmentosa, the words, “I’m sorry” in the context of blindness has, at times, felt more like a judgement than anything else. It is possible to be well-meaning, but demeaning. It’s another way of saying, “How can you live like that? I sure couldn’t. I’d rather be dead than disabled.” Whether it’s said in a flip and dismissive way, such as, “Whatever…it’s your drama, your trauma,” or it is said as a way to express true sorrow for my so-called plight, I am presumed to be living a substandard quality of life.

We assess judgements on others in many ways, and in many contexts. The disability community certainly doesn’t have the market cornered on prejudgement, the soft bigotry of low expectations, or edicts as to what we should or should not find acceptable.

Years ago, before mandatory vehicle shoulder harnesses and passenger air bags, Susan was in a devastating car wreck. She and some girlfriends were to go out for a celebratory evening, and the designated driver, who apparently decided earlier that night to abdicate her responsibility, was already impaired when she picked up Sue and her friends. Sue got into the car, unaware that the driver had already been bar-hopping. Under the influence of alcohol, and at speed, the driver lost control of the vehicle, left the road, and plowed into a building. Buckled up, and in the back seat, Susan, who was wearing a seat belt which was still considered optional back then, was partly ejected, but still held in by the lap belt that nearly tore her abdomen in half. Along with a broken back and neck, many other internal injuries that necessitated the removal of part of her intestine, Susan found herself in full body traction and a skull halo for many long months. “My God,” her hospital bedside visitors would marvel, “You’re lucky to be alive.”

“Lucky?” Susan recalled to me. “there were many days I didn’t feel so lucky. But it was drilled into me by almost everyone who saw me that I should feel grateful. There were days when I was in such excruciating pain that I did not feel grateful about much of anything.” Sue went on to tell me how much she resented the way many well-intentioned, but thoughtless people would attempt to dictate to her how she was supposed to feel. She should be grateful her husband didn’t leave her. She should be grateful her children had not been taken from her while she was incapacitated. She should be grateful it wasn’t worse.

Schooling someone as to how they should feel about something is tantamount to saying, you’ll eat it, and like it. Can you imagine going out to dinner, and the server judging you for not liking a menu item? The conversation might go something like this:

You: “Would it be possible to have green beans instead of broccoli?”

Server: “What? You don’t like broccoli? What’s the matter with you? This is the best broccoli on the planet.”

You: “No, really, I don’t care much for broccoli. I’d really appreciate it if I could have something else instead.”

Server: “Do you know how long it took to grow that broccoli? How hard we worked to make it for you? It’s good enough for everyone else. No one else has claimed they dislike it. What’s wrong with you that you don’t? Are you crazy? You’d rather have green beans? Isn’t that asking a bit much? I don’t have green beans to give you. Broccoli should be good enough, and if it isn’t, that’s just too bad. Do you think you’re something special, that you think you should have green beans? You have no right to want green beans. What do you think this is, the Ritz Carlton? People like you are never satisfied. let me list the innumerable things we’ve done to serve you this broccoli. You’ll eat the broccoli, and like it.”

Well,. I doubt that scene would ever play itself out for real, but it is not all that uncommmon in relationships. How many times have you been told that you can’t have what you want, because you ask for too much, want more than the other person can give, and should feel grateful for the way you are being treated, and if not, then there is either something wrong with you, or that you shouldn’t want what you want? Look at all the other person has done for you. You should be satisfied with how things are, good enough should be good enough. After all, are yu sure you are really qualified to decide what constitutes a satisfying quality of life?

Who are you to decide? You are the only one who CAN decide. No one else has the right to judge what should be good enough for you. No one else has the right to dictate to you what you should be willing to accept, whether that’s the choice to use “ghetto” assistive technology, being treated as a priority, or a serving of green beans instead of broccoli.

Recently, I saw a news story about a lifelong relationship between two friends who met as young boys, a friendship that had lasted through trials and tribulations, including the accidental paralysis of one of the young men, who then spent his days using a wheelchair. The story lauded the non-disabled man as a hero for not only continuing the friendship, but for later becoming his disabled buddy’s caregiver. Why was it that the non-disabled friend was held up as the hero? Because he was making some sort of sacrifice? Because he wanted to remain friends, even though the guy’s wheelchair…what? Cramped his style? Why wasn’t there any mention of what the non-disabled friend was getting from the relationship? How do we know that the non-disabled friend wasn’t some kind of supreme ass hat who had no other friends, and it was the guy in the wheelchair who was the hero for being the only person in his life willing to put up with his crap? For that matter, why would the guy in the wheelchair be a hero, either? Why would one or the other, and not both, be a hero? Why not consider both men as heroes for being stellar humans?

Because there is an implied judgement that someone in a wheelchair lives a reduced quality of life, and anyone who is non-disabled, who extends a friendship, or provides care, is doing them a favor. After all, who would willingly compromise the awesomeness that is able–bodied life, complete with better quality, able-bodied friends, unless they were magnanimous and self-sacrificing? Ridiculous. For all we know, it was a paid gig. But the audience is left ignorant, manipulated by the producers who were really working that hero angle hard.

There are certain responses that I can always count on when interacting with most non-disabled people. Some are borne out of curiosity: “So, have you always been this way?” Others stem from a desire to find commmon ground: “My sister-in-law has a co-worker who has a cousin who knows a blind guy.” Still others are offensive, in an effort to be ingratiating: “Hey, would it be okay if I told you a joke? A blind guy and a dog walked into a bar…” Hint: If you have to ask if it’s okay, it probably isn’t. Of all of these not so endearing, tried-andtrue conversations starters, one of my least favorites is, “I’m sorry,” because I’m sorry, and other judgements, place me in an imaginary hierarchy on which I do not belong.

Once, when interacting with someone who uttered the inevitable “I’m sorry,” after learning I am blind, I responded with, “that’s all right. I’m sorry you’re a brunette.” There was a few long seconds of silence, then she said, “I’m not a brunette.” “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

I don’t think she got it.

LL

The Value of Gratuitous Controversy

Based upon the barrage of upsetting, demoralizing, or downright horrifying news to which we are subjected these days, it is no wonder why some people avoid daily news. With the ubiquity of social media, and the insistence that we pay attention, by way of tech device alerts and notifications, a purposeful, thorough ignorance of all current events may be hard to achieve. Sometimes, it seems as though there is simply no good news anymore. Sometimes, it seems as though the entire world has collectively gone mad.

With the many ways in which we are confronted by calamitous events and other generally bad news, it is understandable that we might want to take refuge in a world of our own creation, where we are surrounded, even virtually, by friends and like-minded others, and that it would be disadvantageous to invite sources of negativity into that world. Yet, it seems like a losing battle to bar the virtual door of any and all aggravating things. So, I wonder, why is it that some people seem to revel in controversy, to deliberately agitate, irritate, or inflame?

While I cannot pretend to know the answer, I can only opine based upon my observations. There seems to be two types of people who incite controversy for controversy’s sake: Those who genuinely enjoy the sport of it, and those who pretend they don’t.

Shock jocks,, radio personalities, and editorial writers are paid to create controversy so as to attract an audience. Some of these media dwellers have openly claimed that, if they have not made everyone on every side of an issue angry, then they simply have not done their job. There are others, however, not bound by lucrative contracts with multinational media corporations, who engage in this practice for a far less enriching payoff. Some of these people are part of our own community.

Before I continue, I will digress long enough to acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and it goes without saying that we are governed by our first amendment rights as to free speech. Say what you will, and let the chips fall where they may, as I am exercising my right to free speech here. What I question, sometimes, is the mind-set of those who seek to create controversy under the guise of “opening up a dialogue,” or, “inviting discussion,” or “information gathering.” I question the value of controversy for controversy’s sake.

I am acquainted with a small handful of people who genuinely enjoy putting a spin on the ball and then walking away. They love to sit back and watch the reaction they get, they welcome the opportunity to engage in heated exchanges where they relish any excuse to let fly savage retorts, vicious name-calling, or poisonous epithets. They hold most others in low regard, believing that others are mentally or philosophically inferior. Creating controversy flexes their rhetorical muscles. It maintains their intellectual superiority. It sharpens their edge. They are validation-addicted adrenaline junkies who find satisfaction in knowing they have the power to elicit reactions in others. It’s a twisted version of a Pavlovian type conditioned response to stimulus, where the antagonistic “scientist” rings a bell, the audience “rats” repeatedly depress the lever, but it is the scientist who gets the reward pellet.

The question I find myself asking, when I become aware of such an instance, which seems almost constantly, is, “is this really necessary?”

Again, let me reiterate, because some of you may be thinking that I am veering dangerously close to advocating for forfeiture of our right to express an opinion, that there is a difference between the soliciting of alternate views with the desire for rational social discourse, and stirring up trouble for one’s own amusement.

Some of the weightiest issues debated upon by our founding fathers were done so with infinite regard for opposing views, butt with no less passion. In reading some of the writings of our nation’s builders, I have found myself in awe of the inner turmoil, moral conflict, and penetrating consideration paid to the most profound of human experiences, that of freedom and self-determination. Yet I couldn’t help but be moved by the eloquence and artfulness with which the founders painted their perspectives on a canvas of conviction.

Here I go again, about to express my own opinion: We are either contributing to the well-being, education, or advancement of others, or we are poisoning the well. While I agree that there is a certain amount of interpretation as to when, if, or to what degree this occurs, I think it is generally recognizable when one is being gratuitously controversial, with no greater purpose other than to fan the embers of dissatisfaction. In my opinion, it is a conceit. It is self-important. In most cases, I find it unnecessary.

My name is Laura Legendary, and I approve this message.

LL