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“She’s got more than me!” Are there siblings anywhere who’ve never heard that phrase? “…All men are created equal” is interpreted by some to mean everybody who’s the same should have the same. They’re anxious to demonstrate we aren’t really all the same, however, so there are those who SHOULD have more and those who SHOULD have less…for arbitrary reasons they invent. It’s comforting to think you’re better than somebody.
One of the more confounding envies I didn’t anticipate involves people who are “differently abled.” When people suffer terrible accidents, military conflict injuries, or birth defects that leave them lacking body parts or abilities that are common in the public-at-large, we often make the mistake of categorizing the person according to the disability—“the blind man” instead of “John, a man who’s blind.” If you happen to be the person who has undergone something such as an amputation, you may resent being designated first by what you don’t have instead of who you are. (I’d resent being known as “Math-Challenged Susan.”) Those who call themselves “able-bodied” (in spite of the fact that many don’t utilize their abilities in a positive way) often smother what we see as the “unfortunate” with pity, as though they are less-than, and we feel as though we’re being compassionate instead of patronizing.
As we watch the 2022 Paralympics on TV, we have to admit these people we’re pitying are exquisitely able-bodied; they simply approach each challenge differently. Able-bodied people think of them as exceptions—as though all people who achieve great triumphs aren’t exceptional in some way. The mean-spirited assume when someone differently abled accomplishes much, that person must have enjoyed special considerations beyond practical adaptations. Envy makes excuses. The confounding envy I mentioned that was revealed by a program on PBS NOVA titled “Augmented” falls into that category.
When avid climber Hugh Herr lost both his legs as a teenager due to frostbite, he despaired like others suddenly confronted with a changed anatomy. He couldn’t climb well with the prosthetic limbs available at the time. He determined that someone needed to design better equipment and set about gaining enough advanced education to know how to approach the problem. He also discovered that the goal of traditional amputations (unchanged since the Civil War) was to seal the wound, but the wrap-around style of the surgery effectively eliminated any possibility of using leftover nerves. Today, with the input of Herr’s team at MIT Media Lab, amputations are done leaving as much connectivity as possible so prosthetics can be controlled in much the same way as the original limb. In fact, a single person may have a selection of prosthetics for different functions—including rock climbing. Interestingly, instead of mimicking the look of the original appendages, the new prosthetics are designed to overcome particular limitations inherent in natural limbs. Enter envy. “It’s not fair.” Some mutter that such adaptations (like social programs meant to level the playing field) shouldn’t be covered by insurance because that person…what?…DESERVES to be less?…certainly not more!
People have never all been the same. Particular gifts have always drawn envy: intelligence, resilience, beauty, coordination, strength, etc., etc. Envy of those we called “disabled” didn’t enter the picture until electronic augmentation provided certain advantages, so those using augmentation could no longer be dismissed as less-than. Herr described one competitive climber who complained he should have his legs amputated so he’d be more likely to win. Perhaps our social system has placed too much emphasis on competition and not enough on cooperation to the detriment of us all. We’ve nourished greed, selfishness, and a dearth of empathy. We find fault with anyone who seems to have something we don’t have—which means each of us has plenty of potential victims to denigrate.