Most of us in the West feel increasingly isolated from each other, monads with our heads craned towards our smart-phones, or wandering the aisles half-conscious. The proliferation of both social media and cafes is part of the same dynamic – we long for human contact, yet we’re nervous about stepping outside our comfortable circle.
Talking to strangers is unsettling, in both senses – a little frightening and potentially liberating. That goes for all of us, but for those of us who are visibly different, whose bodies are obviously non-conformist, the approach of a stranger carries some peculiarly acute dilemmas.
I want to mention just two examples, and dwell for a moment in the gulf between them.
Late last year, at the local organic grocery, my partner and I were placing the last few items in our basket. Pumpkin, kipflers, silverbeet, most likely. It’s a narrow shop; you have to breathe in or walk sideways to pass people in the aisles. As we were leaving, a woman approached me with a vague smile on her face, her posture leaning slightly towards me. “Hello..”
I used to run a cafe, and I’m visibly memorable, so I assumed she recognised me; I smiled and said hi in return. She asked me how I was going, suggesting things must be pretty difficult. She told me she had a friend who specialised in alternative treatment, and that her own back pain was greatly relieved by visiting her. Oh, ok. She didn’t know me. It was going to be one of those “unsolicited charity conversations”.
I was in a reasonably optimistic mood and felt ok about being open with her. People rarely talk about embodiment, so perhaps this was a chance to share my own version of being human, and move pleasantly onwards. I told her I have Marfan Syndrome, which for me has meant an unusual shape, but actually no pain, luckily and gladly, and smiling while I said how ironic it is.
“Oh, you must have pain”, she said.
“Um, no, not really, no more than anyone, probably less, actually”.
This went back and forth for a while. I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.
Eventually the pointlessness of it ate away at my resolve. I was polite, direct, with perhaps just a hint of impatience. “I’m sorry, I really have to go, I’m really fine, OK?”.
She was stunned, almost mortified. “Ughh, I was only trying to be helpful!”. I’m reminded that my body seems to raise all sorts of questions that “demand” answers, and that fundamentalism is not limited to religion.
Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I’m in the middle of a busy period, wrestling with a thesis and other obligations, rushing into the local supermarket to pick up a few essentials. I only notice my own low-level stress when the little girl in the pink princess outfit cuts me off, running obliviously through the aisles – “Daddy! Look at me!” – and I’m instantly irritated. I try to avoid them, head down another aisle. Of course, being tired, I become indecisive and end up staring at a wall of condiments, unsure.
Suddenly, there’s “Dad” at my side. “Uh… hi…”, he says, casually but nervously, “my daughter was just asking me about your back, and I told her it’s better to ask than to stare, so I’m sorry to bother you, but is it ok if I ask you?”.
At these moments, a certain texture of solidity in my body comes up against a fluid world. I’m face to face with my own reluctance to engage, but underneath there is a way of being that accepts, even relishes, interconnection and the blurring of boundaries. Decision time, in a split second.
I tell them both, as simply as I can – yes, this is my spine, it’s just more curved than straight, and I’m healthy. Everyone has different shaped bodies. The little princess smiles, shyly looks down at her feet, then around the store. She’s obviously happy to meet someone unusual, but just as obviously awkward and a bit bored now.
Dad tells me they’ve asked other people before, and apparently she likes to hug people goodbye. Sure, why not? So, a hug and a brief chat later, we go our separate ways. Through the aisles and towards the checkout, with a slight crack in normality.
For a long time, though I wouldn’t have said it this way, I deeply resented my body and the kind of attention it attracted (and continues to attract). I wanted to be invisible, to move through the world with the anonymity I imagined everyone else had. Peoples’ eyes were like the rays of a harsh summer sun, the intensity magnified through the glass of my own discomfort. They burnt and hurt.
And nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.
Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’
I have come gradually, fitfully, with some reluctance, to a realisation that this is the life and the body I have. Autonomy and self-determination is a mythical horizon. The love and support that I have been given over the years is evidence of that – without it, I would still be rushing back to the shadows, wishing for the impossible. In the face of the current neoliberal economy and consumerist culture, in spite of my own self-doubt and fragility, I want to build the connections that nourish myself and others. I want this life.
So, I think that being strange carries a kind of responsibility. There is no prescription, but I would suggest two guiding principles – openness to the unpredictability of the encounter, and respect for the particular embodied subjectivity of the other person. These principles go both ways of course.
For those of you who are strange and are often approached by strangers, I can’t tell you how to respond, though. We all have to find our own way of dealing with this “responsibility”, whether it be a repertoir of answers or a reserve of attitude that we draw on. Each body is unique, and each person makes their way through difference with their own temperament and aspirations. After all, we are more than what makes others stare at us.
Feel free to suggest other links or your own suggestions or insights – I’d love to see them.