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When Fear of Difference Keeps Us Apart


I’ve been thinking a lot about why we all don’t stand together. Even when we are in the same community of people. Even when we share the same religion. Even when we work together with a common mission. Even when we are family.

I think it must be fear.

I am in a few groups of people who live in fear, either currently or historically or both. I have witnessed and experienced the effects of feeling excluded in these groups, and I have been outspoken at times about my feelings because it is my way. I am a truth teller and I am a writer. This is how I need to express myself.

My life has been hard lately so my truths are hard. I know my words land poorly on some of the people I love. I regret that this has caused grief in my circles. It feels awful. Even worse, it hasn’t changed anything. If anything, it has made some of my relationships worse. And I still wish the people I love would be open to receiving what I need them to know and simply understand there is no blame and there is no shame. I’m just asking to be seen and heard. I’m just asking for understanding.

It is a shame when fear keeps us separated. Keeps us from being the community of people we really are meant to be. Keeps us from being the people we need to be for each other.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling because I talk to people all the time who feel the same way. I know a lot of people who are in groups where they feel they aren’t welcome, where they don’t belong. But I believe we can all grow and learn to get along. I’m one of those people who believes that anything is possible. I am an optimist.

I believe there is always potential to live and work together. Even when we disagree. Even when we don’t look exactly the same or talk the same or pray the same. I believe our differences are what make us valuable. I believe we can always find shared interests and can and should value others. We share family. We celebrate and grieve together. We have the same struggles. We are really all the same.

I was traveling recently and had the chance to spend a day in Springfield, Illinois. The day I was in downtown Springfield it appeared as hot and dusty and dead as a city could be, but it was inspiring to me anyway. How could it not be? Springfield is all about Abraham Lincoln.

I spent a few hours taking in Lincoln’s presidential library and museum. His ideas, thoughts and words filled me with fresh hope. One of his quotes has been percolating since then and following me around ever since. In fact, there has been a billboard across the street from my house with the same quote. I am certain it must have been placed there to remind me. It states, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

This is a fundamental truth.

I was born into an historically vulnerable community. I am Jewish. My father is Jewish. His parents were both Jewish. Their parents were both Jewish. They were all Jewish up my father’s line, at least as far as I know. My mother is also Jewish. She converted to the religion after she married my father. There has never been any question in my mind that I am Jewish, yet I have felt for years that I don’t always belong.

I have tens of stories beginning in my early childhood about people who told me that they would not consider me to be Jewish or that I’m not the “right kind of Jew.” The different categories in the Jewish world are widely accepted. I was raised reformed. My husband was raised conservative. There is a commonly accepted difference between these two ways of being Jewish. This difference equates to an implied “less than,” but I have never understood why. How can we possibly stand together if we can’t even accept that we are all equally Jewish?

As a result, this concept of being different or less than while being the same has bothered me my whole life and has become even more frustrating as a mother. My children may appear different to some people. They are not. They are just like everyone else, and so am I.

One of my children, Max, is deaf. This fact automatically puts them and our family into a vulnerable, divided and very diverse group of people. Just like being Jewish. Like most people who have no experience with deafness, I initially assumed all deaf people were the same and they must use American Sign Language. I quickly realized this is not at all true. Unless you are a part of this community of people, you may never know there are many different ways to live as a deaf person in the world. Signing is one way, but it is not the only way.

Max understands and speaks English. It can take some patience, but mostly it just takes paying close attention when you’re having a conversation. It feels to me the same as having a conversation with my 75-year-old parents and neither of them are deaf. Max is also a native cuer, which means that Max understands spoken language most effectively when someone uses a visual mode of communication called Cued Speech, which is what I do.

Max also knows how to communicate in sign, but it is not natural and it takes a lot of effort because Max was not raised with that language. In fact, it might come as a bit of a surprise to most people that most deaf kids aren’t. Max was raised and educated using spoken English, because it’s our family’s shared language. It just made the most sense to me when I was trying to figure it all out.

Despite the fact that Max speaks the same language as most people they meet, Max is often feared by hearing people because of their deafness. They are afraid to be around deaf people because they are afraid they won’t be able to understand each other. Max almost always feels excluded and can sense this fear, so it causes them to withdraw from people altogether. Even from people in our own family. Even from people who love Max.

Many hearing people have pushed technology on Max because they think it is the best solution. It’s not. The sound processors Max uses with their cochlear implants just don’t give Max the hearing people assume it must. Max misses a lot of what is being said. This fact sometimes gives people the false idea that Max is not smart or capable, which is far from the truth. Max is one of the smartest and most capable people I’ve ever known. Why can’t people just understand that deaf people and hearing people are all created equal?

And then there’s the deaf signing community, in which Max also feels excluded and feared. Despite the fact that Max does sign, sometimes deaf people seem uncomfortable or make assumptions about Max because of the cueing and the speaking. Some people may feel Max is not the “right kind of deaf.” They may have never been educated about Cued Speech at all and they can’t understand it. They also may not understand people who speak. Max does not feel they are welcome in parts of the deaf community. This really breaks my heart and I know this must be confusing to a lot of people, but it’s the truth. Aren’t all deaf people created equal, too?

Our differences are what make us interesting and they can add value. If we were all the same in every way, life would be so bland. We may all be different, but in the end we are the same and we need one another. People are not meant to do life alone. It’s just too hard. Without the support of our own people, vulnerable communities like mine will continue to be so.

There is no reason to be afraid.

Getty art by frimages.