I was a cute kid. A pretty girl – all-American, blonde… Then one day while weeding the raspberries with my Dad, I managed to smear poison sumac all over my face and neck. I was a mess the next morning. It was a few days before July 4th, so when we went to the fairgrounds for the annual celebration, I was still looking pretty rough. It’s not like there’s writing on your forehead that says, “It’s okay, it’s just sumac.” So I was getting looks…. And people were moving away from me as I walked by. It was the strangest experience of my life to that time. I wasn’t used to being looked at like that.
Suddenly I was on the other side of an experience that I had heretofore taken for granted. Had I shied away from people who looked different? I don’t think so. But had I looked at them differently? I’m sure I did. Now I was on the receiving end and, let me tell you, it did NOT feel good. Rather than holding my head up and giving them a “go to the devil” look, I found myself looking down, hiding as much of my face as possible.
A close family member of mine has neurofibromatosis. When I was a kid, it was just known as her “skin condition.” There are two types of NF – she has the “good” kind. People with the “bad” kind have growths on their internal organs which eventually choke them to death. Her growths are on the outside. It manifests like soft bumps all over her. Her closest friends and family don’t even see them anymore. It’s just who she is, so to speak. Unfortunately, the rest of the world isn’t so kind.
Mothers have pushed their children behind them when she comes by. Because she’s gutsy, she’s asked why. “So they don’t get what you got,” is the usual reply. Men interested in her have decided they couldn’t date her because of it. Even a nurse during a recent hospital visit gestured to them and said, “What are these little dealies?” Little dealies? Really?
Does it affect who she is on the inside? There’s the rub – because the answer is YES. Just like my poison sumac turned me from a confident pre-teen into a head-hanging bundle of insecurity, her NF has affected her personality in multiple ways. She is insecure, untrusting, and – ironically – extremely judgmental about other peoples’ appearances. What a waste.
I’m not suggesting that people be direct and ask what those “little dealies” are or what was all over my face. It is, quite frankly, none of their business. I’m not suggesting that people not be curious, or even a bit put off by someones’s unusual appearance. That can’t be helped.
Am I suggesting, then, that people pretend they don’t notice or that it doesn’t bother them? To inwardly acknowledge their feelings and yet keep that reaction out of their faces? To think about the feelings of the “afflicted” person and make sure they’re unaware of any effect their appearance has had? To look at them through the eyes of Christ and see the person beyond the malady?