I was shopping with one of my sons over the weekend. The store wasn’t especially crowded, but they were short staffed and so the line was long and slow. My son is usually in motion, so waiting in line requires using a variety of sensory-input strategies to pass the time. Little stay-in-place activities like giving hand squeezes, standing on his toes, or even small bounces in place will help him to endure the tedium, and so we did these things as we waited for our turn to check out.
He also likes things to be orderly, so when items at the check-out line, like the candy displays or the plastic bars to separate orders on the conveyor belt, are misaligned he will organize them while he waits.
When it was our turn to check out he stood with me at the register as I tried to get the card reader to recognize my debit card. Then he noticed that someone at the front of the store had left a helium balloon unattended. This reminded him that he loves to release balloons to float off into the sky, and he quickly walked to the errant balloon and started for the front door. Seeing this I left the register (debit card still sitting in the card reader) and blocked his path. “No, no, that’s not yours, we need to leave it alone,” as he tried to push past me, before accepting my redirection and letting go of the balloon. The entire exchange took less than 5 seconds.
Returning to the register my card was finally accepted, and he took our bag and headed for the door. “Thank you,” I said to the cashier.
“Have a good day. And you have the patience of a saint,” she responded.
Usually this sort of comment triggers embarrassment in me, as I would rather move through these life moments unnoticed. When he was young, I would feel the burning sense that I was being judged as insufficient as a parent and a caregiver – maybe even being exposed as actually being insufficient to this role. This time, I was initially confused, and then I was angry.
Confused, because his actions in the store were so inconsequential. Nothing was lost or broken, no one else was inconvenienced beyond the seconds it took to redirect him back to line. Why did this woman think I was being patient? Then her view of the moment sucker-punched me: I was impressively patient because I related to him respectfully. That’s when I got angry.
If you haven’t spent time with my son some of his choices will be unexpected. Some of them are inappropriate (recent episodes of dumping water on cars so he can see people use their windshield wipers come to mind), but many of them are just atypical, like sing-songy vocalizations and asking for hand squeezes. Some of them are actually helpful – organizing a disorderly display, or putting stray carts where they belong. None of these choices, or any of the other unusual things he might do in any given moment, make him less worthy of respect as a person. None of it changes that at the same time he is impulsive and socially awkward he is also kind, funny, smart, playful, charming, and eager for connection. He’s fully human.
When we look at another person and decide that being in relationship with them requires super-human attributes we are denying their humanity, we are cutting them out of the picture of community. Even the “difficult” people. Even the “weird” people. We are giving ourselves an excuse to not be fully human ourselves. We are hurting ourselves, but more importantly we are hurting them and all of the people who are blessed by their presence.
Different does not mean inherently difficult, or threatening.
Include people who are different from you.
Perceive the ways they can expand your perspective.
Let them season and deepen the flavor of your community.