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We don’t need the research to tell us that we see only what we want to see. Of course, it’s easier to notice other people doing it, but deep down we know we do it, too. There are facts we just don’t want to know, people we just don’t want to understand–so we don’t.
When Jake Sully, the hero in AVATAR, is marked as an alien by the local people, they give him a traditional military institute punishment. They shun him, placing him “where the eye does not see.” West Point discovered that the punishment of shunning sometimes has devastating consequences. Sometimes the isolated cadet acts out emotional illness. Elsewhere, shunned people may make themselves visible by committing acts of violence.
At the very best, the act of deliberately not seeing people we don’t understand makes our view of the world lopsided. We want to think that people we don’t understand don’t matter. Of course, we’re wrong.
In the 1980’s, Richard Lavoie created a DVD of a workshop he had been delivering in various schools in the eastern United States. It was called F.A.T. City or How Difficult Can This Be? It was an early attempt to demonstrate through experience what’s different about having learning differences–what it’s like to be someone like Einstein or Cher or Temple Grandin or Charles Swab. Those are people who are so successful that we enjoy pretending that if we knew them we wouldn’t treat them any differently from anyone else. But people just like them have been mocked and berated and beaten up all around us, and we thought that was normal. Or we chose not to see. When I showed the DVD to instructors from all levels of education, most of them were appalled that they could have been teaching for years with so little knowledge of what was going on in the students before them. Some of them recognized their own children in the behaviors. As civilized people, we are not as sophisticated as we like to think.
Recently, I had the jarring experience of discovering just how many small populations I’ve kept where my eye doesn’t see. I’ve always told my students that you can understand someone without embracing or endorsing him or her. In fact, we must do our best to understand if we’re going to create the kind of society that most of us profess to want–one in which people love one another. We must work at understanding because we have no choice but to live together.
FAR FROM THE TREE by Andrew Solomon was a painful book to read. I put it down many, many times, wishing I had an excuse to abandon it. Solomon did painstaking research into what he calls horizontal populations–such as children who are not like anyone else in the family, children who are born autistic, deaf, gay, or what we label emotionally ill, for example. They often find kindred spirits outside the family. Each chapter introduces a new population. Solomon explains the current scientific understanding behind each reality. He spent time with members of each population and with the families and friends left to cope or not. Some of the stories are heart-warming. Others are shocking. Still others leave unyielding pain.
You’ll need courage and stamina to read FAR FROM THE TREE. Regardless of your background, I guarantee you’ll encounter realities you never imagined. Speaking for myself, I had experienced friends who happened to be blind or homosexual or have learning differences. I had no clue how many different kinds of gender identification exist or how superficially “normal” people have reacted. I had no clue that “dwarf tossing” is an activity that is widely condoned in the civilized world, in spite of the fact that it’s physically damaging. I didn’t know about parents who have abused deaf children, knowing the child couldn’t call for help. I had only imagined what the parents of the boys from Columbine High School in Colorado who began the series of school mass murders could have felt. Finally, although I had a small exposure within my own family, the chapter on autism was the most heart-rending information I have ever encountered.
You won’t want to read FAR FROM THE TREE. Most of you won’t. The world is nicer if you don’t look at the parts you don’t enjoy. Not only do we ignore the people we have trouble understanding, we often torture them in the belief that it’s okay to torture someone who isn’t like us. Some of them, we murder. It’s so easy to blame or condemn if you pretend “different” means “less human.” But the hope in the book is the hope in the world–that once we understand our common humanity and the compassion most major religions encourage, we’ll create what former President H. W. Bush used to call a “kinder, gentler nation.”
No one knows precisely how many families have yet to discover they have a child who is different from the person they expected. How many will handle the challenge in a way that is positive for all concerned? The majority of inmates in our prisons can be identified as belonging to one of the horizontal populations. What could we do better if we allowed ourselves to be more aware? When do we need to do it?