Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Beauty of Difference

I have known a lot of different people in my life. Many of them are extremely intelligent, and even more are very talented. What I have learned in getting to know such a wide variety of people is that normal is a myth, or as one young man said to me in high school, "Normal is a setting on a washing machine." I find it ironic that the same young man who said that now, as a father, seems to be working hard to help his autistic son be "normal". Unless I misunderstood his intentions, he believes that by removing the excess heavy metals from his son's blood stream, his son will become a "normal" kid. I find myself remembering the short story about the man with a beautiful, loving wife, who desperately wanted to remove her peculiar birthmark so she would be "even better," only to find when he finally did that she died. Being different is not wrong. In fact, most of my friends in school have been the people who were very different from the rest of society.

This week, The Hump Day Hmm asks us to consider the drive to fix or make normal, especially when it comes to children. As a parent, I find myself wanting to nurture the special qualities of my children, knowing all too well that some of those attributes will be attacked by society (and the educational system) simply because they are "different." As I have studied the different schools I am considering applying to, I have come across the discipline of Positive Organizational Studies, which has roots in the growing field of positive psychology. What I love about the discipline of POS is the focus on the positive. Researchers look for the good in an industry, a company, a department, or simply a small group within the greater whole. My mother taught me, sometimes to my annoyance, to look for the good in other people. To bring this aside back to my point, I try to look for the good in my children, and I try to help them look for the good in other people. My wife and I both have a lot of friends who come from far outside the "norm" and we appreciate the beauty of difference. If everyone was the same, after all, the world would be a very boring place.

So, would I do something to help a disabled child of mine be "normal"? I can't say I wouldn't work to help my child adapt their special qualities to be able to deal with society, but I would not automatically assume they needed to be "fixed." One of the greatest men I have known had cerebral palsy from birth. Despite his "disability," he completed a doctorate at Yale. What might he have become if he were normal? Who knows. It's just as likely that he would have been a wonderful, capable person, but he might not have worked so hard to achieve what he did.

I am thankful for diversity, and I appreciate that some of the greatest people I will ever meet might be considered "handicapped" by someone else. Blind, deaf, and dumb men and women have contributed greatly to art, science, and education. Some of the hardest workers I have ever observed are labelled "retarded" by medical science, though supposedly "normal" employees at many a retailer (to use a Southernism) "ain't worth killin'." More often than not someone who is different, who doesn't learn like the rest of society, or that the world labels harshly for some supposed deficiency, has more to teach us than a dozen college professors.

-- Robert


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, as I have found that men tend to be MORE concerned with their children fitting in than women are (both are concerned, but men are more so). I think it has to do with teasing in the locker room.

Melissa said...

I think fitting in and adapting to society are different. Fitting in implies changing something to "fit" a mold, while adapting is taking what you have and making it work, regardless of fit.

Nice take on the subject. :)

Robert said...


Most of my friends growing up were the ones who got picked on, and I was sometimes their chief defender, so I guess I realize that being different and picked on can be tough, but it can be worth the price of admission (I'd rather be the nerd being picked on than the moron doing the picking). I teach my kids to be confident, and when they're old enough how to handle being teased. My parents taught me well how to deal with it, and I think it helped. By the time I got older, I never got picked on because I was a big guy who intimidated some, while others just generally liked me and wouldn't think to pick on me.

Robert said...


I agree. I would rather adapt than fit in, in any case that makes sense. If there are grave health concerns, though, it's hard to ignore those completely.

Julie Pippert said...

I like the adapting versus fitting in point. Good distinction.

Sometimes those people---the famous ones who "overcame disability" to achieve something---would have those talents and would likely achieve anyway, only it would be "normal" because of expectations. I think considering expectations is an intriguing thing in this discussion.

I do agree about liking a spectrum, but I think the real question for me is about individual versus greater good.

Robert said...

I can definitely see the individual versus greater good argument.

Yes, expectations definitely play a role in how achievements are measured, but in the case of the man with cerebral palsey, his achievement is remarkable even for a normal person, just made that much more so given his infirmities.

Great topic, really.

le35 said...

I loved this post Rob. I am still thinking of posting a response to Julie in a post of my own.

le35 said...

I loved this post Rob. I am still thinking of posting a response to Julie in a post of my own.

TwoSquareMeals said...

My eldest will definitely not fit in in American public schools, but there is definitely nothing I would do to "fix" him. Instead, I want to nurture his incredible gifts and help him to adapt and succeed. Great take on the topic.

Robert said...

Thanks, twosquaremeals. I am glad you can identify the special qualities your son has and nurture him, instead of looking for some way to make him fit some ideal.

Angela at mommy bytes said...

I'm a week late for the Hmm, but I totally agree on the "adapt" and not "fix". Check out my post here: