Monday, May 28, 2012

What’s your Malfunction?

There’s something about me that’s different from other folks and it’s not by choice. In fact, I wish I wasn’t this way but I am, so have to live with it. You can’t see it and probably would never know unless I told you, but it affects me every day. Sometimes it has the potential to place me at risk – especially when I’m alone. In other instances it can be a benefit. From a certain point of view, I suppose it could be viewed as a disability but I tend to reserve that term for folks who have more life-impacting challenges. I consider my affliction an annoying inconvenience than anything, although it might be more of an issue for some.
Not long ago, I placed my condition front and center when I got the opportunity to speak with a group of youth as part of a leadership development program. My talk centered on issues of being different, which I believe can sometimes erode a person’s self-esteem and, in turn, their confidence. The goal was to help students appreciate the idea that everyone has something different about them; you might not see it or ever know it, but it exists in every person. It’s a straightforward lesson but one many can forget when measuring themselves against others.
As part of the presentation, I conducted a sharing exercise that asked the simple yet personal question: ‘what’s one thing about you that makes you different from most other people?’ By way of example, I shared my own malfunction. After a moment of juvenile banter among the students, along with the expected round of questions about my condition – it’s limitations and advantages – it was time for them to share. What happened next surprised me.
One by one, each of these middle- and high-schoolers revealed unapparent differences in themselves. As one might expect, a few comments sailed off-topic. One admitted liking to watch fire; another squawked about hating school (despite high academic achievement). Others offered comments more along the line of what I hoped. One stated being born with an underdeveloped bladder. Another was color blind. Still another admitted to being dyslexic. A hush filled the room when one spoke at a near whisper that her mother had died during child birth.
As they shared, I was prepared to address the ridicule that some might blurt upon hearing what was, in quite a few cases, some fairly unique differences. Instead, I observed with wonder how student after student revealed often-intimate aspects of themselves, yet no one judged. No one snickered. Instead, there were honest questions and comments born of curiosity. And empathy.
“Is that why you always have to go to the restroom during class?” “You can’t see any colors, or just certain ones?”  “It must be hard to read stuff if you see letters backwards.” “You must miss your mom.”
As for what makes me different? My malfunction is that I have no sense of smell. As a result, I never capture the aroma of a simmering supper, nor catch the fragrance of spring. Neither can I tell if and when a gas leak is in the house. On the other hand it’s easier for me to brave the misadventure of entering an unkept toilet at a remote rest stop.
Sometimes it’s daunting to be fully aware of your own limitations and feel intimidated by others who, on the surface, seem more capable or even superior. Yet if we can remember that every person – no matter what they say or how they seem – has things about them that make them different, going about life can be a whole lot easier.

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