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How to Survive Being Stared At

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The other day some kids stared at me. My son’s class was meeting at the park to perform their year-end songs, and I decided to surprise Sam by coming. Earlier I told him I had to work, so when his friends saw me walking toward the park, they started shouting, “Sam! Your dad’s here! I thought you said he was for sure not coming?!” Sam ran to me, smiling sheepishly and wrapped his arms around my neck. Then his friends came over. There they stood. All lined-up, their little 7-year old fingers pointed at me like an adorable firing squad. “What happened to his arm?” some of them quietly asked. “Hey, boys,” I said. I mean, I’m used to this.

I was born missing my left arm just below the elbow. People have been staring at me my whole life. Heck, I stare at me when I walk by a store front or when I see myself in a video. I’m different; it’s a fact of life. So, those situations at the park are not altogether uncommon. Kids are curious. They also have no sense of decorum. And that’s totally cool, but honestly, it’s still hard sometimes. It’s hard to be stared at, even when it’s been happening to you for 33 years.

So, how do I deal with it? It helps me to remember a few things.

Kids don’t know any better. I’m not saying kids aren’t smart or anything; I’m just saying they’ve (probably) never seen somebody like me ,and their brains are still in that stage where they’re like, “HOLY CRAP. THAT DUDE IS MISSING HIS ARM. I MUST KNOW WHY. I WILL ASK HIM IMMEDIATELY.” I think my favorite reaction is when I tell them that I was born without it, and they say, “No you weren’t. Where is it really?” They’re convinced I’m somehow hiding it. It’s awesome. So, yes, it can still be somewhat awkward when kids stare, but I can’t fault them. They’re curious — and for good reason.

Parents usually don’t know any better, either. Honestly, parents are harder to deal with. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad at them. I kind of pity them, actually. Most of the time they have no idea how to react when their child gets vocal about my arm. And I can’t blame ‘em. I mean, that’s not one of those things you practice with your child. ”Ok, so if we happen to see someone with one arm today, let’s make sure we politely say hello and walk by them without staring. If you must ask them what happened, please do so with dignity and tact.” Right. Usually the kid blurts out, “HE’S GOT A BROKE ARM!” and the mom’s face contorts in terror while she tries not to stare at me and then yells at her kid to be quiet. Awkward. So, for all you parents, take the opportunity to teach your kid that it’s OK to be curious and then help them ask the questions they’re wondering about. Everybody wins when that happens.

We are all infatuated with differences. Did you ever have that little, thick Guinness Book of World Records when you were a kid? The one with those humongous twins on tiny motorcycles? And that super tall guy? And the dude with the fingernails that curled and curled because they were so long? Only now do I recognize the irony in my obsession with the abnormal. The fact is, differences catch our attention. And that’s not bad, it just… is. I notice people stealing glances at my arm during conversations, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. I know they can’t help it. They’re not trying to be rude. It’s like looking at a white sheet of paper and trying not to stare at the bright yellow blotch in the corner. Impossible. I understand that.

While these ideas help me to some extent, the reality is that sometimes it still hurts to be stared at. Maybe you feel the same way. Maybe you’re tall. Or short. Or overweight. Or you have red hair. Or no hair. Or you limp. Or you use a wheelchair. Or you’re blind. Or you’re a different color than all your friends. It could be anything. I want to tell you that it’s OK to not enjoy being stared at. I also want to tell you to accept that it is a fact of life. Most people don’t mean to be rude. Most people don’t even want to stare; they just can’t help it.

I challenge you to believe that you were made just right. I had an atheist college professor named Dr. Goodpaster (delicious, right?) who once asked me, “Since you believe in God, shouldn’t you be mad at him for making you that way?” Despite being horribly offensive, his question does make sense. Well, it does if you believe the only people worth anything are the ones who are perfectly shaped. I told him, no, I don’t believe I should be mad at God. It’s my belief that he made me this way for a reason. And I believe He made Dr. Goodpaster the way he did for a reason. And I believe he made you the way He did for a reason.

I believe each of us are wonderfully made.

It makes surviving the stares a little bit easier.

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This post originally appeared on Living One Handed.

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Originally published: January 30, 2015
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