It can be hard to take a compliment gracefully. Sometimes we feel undeserving. Other times we wonder if we are being manipulated. There are times we feel a compliment is discordant with our actual achievement, such as when veterans of recent wars recoil from “Thank you for your service.”
I’ve been exchanging emails with someone I’ll call Anita. In one of her warm messages, she wrote: “I have to say I’m full of admiration for what you have achieved. It would be admirable for a sighted person to do what you have done, and I have to say I still don’t think I completely understand it all but as a blind person …”
She meant well, and good intentions do matter. Still, I felt discomfort, as I have on receiving similar compliments in the past. Some people will understand my ambivalence, but others, including some who are disabled, will say I’m being overly sensitive. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself. This essay is an attempt to figure it out.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation is a desire to be measured on our achievements irrespective of disability, health issues, race, gender or other outside factor. In the everyday world of work, performance matters, not how well we do in spite of this or that disadvantage.
Yet last week I spent an evening with a friend who is going through a long process of deteriorating vision. While exchanging war stories about office life, we acknowledged that many tasks are harder for visually impaired people. We admitted we were pleased with our successes in overcoming obstacles, as well as frustrated at those we couldn’t. If I concede that much in conversation with someone who shares my disability, how can I be unhappy that someone who doesn’t praises how I’ve adapted?
I started out with a reflexive skepticism about the Paralympics, built on the concession that disabled people can’t compete on a level playing field with the world’s top athletes. However, such events show that disabled people are instilled with the same spirit of competition. The joy and simple satisfaction that participants display undercut my purist objections. Moreover, by definition, most of the world can’t compete at the top level, while a fine athlete in one sport might be mediocre at another. A star basketball player is unlikely to excel at baseball. Ask Michael Jordan. In fact, there are some sports in which blind people can compete on more or less equal terms: wrestling is one, as depicted in Robert Russell’s autobiography, To Catch an Angel (1962). Another is dragon boat competition, where vision might give an advantage, but one that is surmountable.
What else might explain my discomfort? There is a significant difference between overcoming disability and other kinds of accomplishment. We admire people who achieve in some extraordinary way: a movie star, an astronaut, an accomplished violinist, the CEO of a corporation whose stock quadruples, a marathoner, an inventor, a firefighter, a Nobel peace prize winner. They all started out from a dream or goal and surpassed expectations. From the outset, their pursuit was voluntary—to the extent we understand volition. By contrast, when disabled people are praised, it can feel as if it’s for something about which we had no choice.
But once again, the explanation isn’t enough. When another friend who has low vision lost the hearing in one ear after removal of a tumor, I felt bad and told him I respected how he was handling the adjustment. “What choice do I have?” he retorted. I said he could have withdrawn into his own world. Instead, he went right back to work and resumed life as usual. What I said to him was no different from what Anita wrote in her email. In short, I’m just as prone both to feel sympathy and to respect how others manage with their disabilities.
Another thought. Praise for accomplishments in spite of disability separates people with obvious disabilities from those without any. Yet this sense of apartness is hardly unique to disabled people. Admiration for a famous actress or returning astronaut can prevent us from accepting them on their own terms. When we admire someone, we convert them into a kind of abstraction. It’s all but impossible to meet authors whose books we’ve loved or actors who have conveyed certain characters on the screen and be able to talk to them as the people they are in person.
At this point, I should allow for the possibility that I dislike having to acknowledge my disability. If true, it’s a little like someone hoping no one will bring up their blemished skin or fat ass. I can’t rule this out. The evidence is in the dilemma blind people face when applying for a job or posting on a dating website: tell people in advance that you’re blind, or wait until they meet you, when their presumed shock might be offset by your geniality, sense of humor, cleverness, or whatever. But does this quandary reflect shame about our disability or a realistic assessment of a probable reaction? I lean toward the latter.
A kinder way of thinking about this quandary is that reference to disability brings out something many of us think of as private. It might seem to compromise a well-earned sense of autonomy and the aura of independence everyone wishes to project to the world.
Since the opening of the Pompidou Center in 1977 (though it wasn’t the first such structure), it has been somewhat fashionable for buildings to display their guts. But the very fact they are the exception demonstrates our fundamental desire not to have such things in our collective face, and more importantly, the desire in many of us not to be completely known. The adjustments that disabled people make are the pipes, mortar and wires of the structures that we call our lives. For a blind person, these adjustments might include how to coordinate clothes, how to manage in the kitchen, how to get around a city when all signs are visual, how to negotiate the workplace, how to appear “normal” in a sighted world. Success with these adjustments is an achievement, yes, but it’s like an athlete’s preparation for the big event. All that preparation means nothing unless the ultimate objective is attained. For many disabled people, that objective is mainstream recognition.
Once again, this need is hardly unique to disabled people. I go back to my list of achievers. How about an astronaut? Much of the admiration will be welcome, but all the recent attention to how they handle bathroom matters? Does a successful artist in whichever medium want their stories to include all the hard work and compromises they might have made to get to where they are? How about the actress who started out in X-rated movies? An F that a college honors student is given for a course can be a source of wry amusement among fellow undergraduates, but that F will be buried when the undergraduate becomes a famous psychiatrist.
True, physical disabilities tend to be out in the open. Comedians and others who like to shock take pride in pointing out the elephant in the room. But in many situations, there are good reasons why the elephant goes unnoticed, or at least without comment. Everyone is granted degrees of privacy even in public. At the office, a man today wouldn’t dare compliment a colleague in a short skirt for her shapely legs, while only a friend would tell a man that he’s wearing his lunch on his shirt and tie. All kinds of social norms and constraints go into what we’ll say to someone, but they all reflect our respect for other people’s feelings or worry about arousing anger—a bit of both, I think. And, in recent decades, fear of legal consequences.
What this notion of privacy comes down to is the need each of us has to mold our own image. It involves a lot of behind-closed-doors activity, as everyone knows who has ever rushed to get ready for work or to host dinner guests.
Some anecdotes are in order. At my last office, a certain lawyer was justly admired for his many achievements in what had once been an obscure field. I certainly hoped for his respect. But whenever he introduced me to someone, he told them that I was his “hero.” It didn’t mean fine lawyer or anything else for which I might want to be known in that environment. It meant he admired me for how I handled my disability.
A friend in her fifties whom I’ve known for thirty years recently lost her vision and became increasingly bothered by the new attention she received as she navigated the city with a cane. One time, a woman approached her on a subway platform to tell her how pretty she looked in her black dress. This friend is no cynic and she’s usually happy to receive praise, but she felt the stranger wouldn’t have been so forthcoming had she, my friend, still been getting around without a cane. I told her she’d better get used to it because blind people are involuntary stars. We had a good laugh at that.
A short passage in my unpublished memoir describes my first memory of receiving praise I knew I didn’t deserve. Here, I am fourteen, and I’d lost my vision only a few months earlier. Coincidentally, my family had just moved to America.
As the summer waned, Dad drove us for a week’s vacation to a cabin resort a hundred miles north of Toronto. In the evening, a woman played guitar as she led the campers in sing-alongs around a fire. Ignorant of the words, I hummed the tunes.
Dad prevailed on me to try the bowling alley. Even with sight, I’d never got the hang of bowling. When I’d released the ball, it had rolled down the alley at a stately pace. Now, despite Dad’s guidance, the ball kept rolling into one or other gutter. My highest score was in the forties. I felt torn between hatred of doing something badly and wanting to do something with Dad.
I chose to believe the other vacationers were discreetly ignoring us. But at the end of the week, they awarded me the bowling prize. I was crushed. From now on would I be judged for how much I tried, not for how well I did?
The prize was a fedora. I’d worn a school cap in England, but never a real hat. With the back rim turned up, the fedora made me think of Chicago gangsters. In time I grew fond of it. It got Mum to laugh when I put it on.
Perhaps, then, the underlying reason why I resist Anita’s comment is an accumulation of compliments that imply allowances for disability. If disabled people felt that praise for how we manage is enough, we’d risk losing our motivation to prosper in mainstream society.
I’ve built an edifice of speculation on top of Anita’s compliment, and yet I still don’t really know why it troubles me. Maybe it’s just a matter of how it’s said, something like the way the words “I love you” can move but also dismay. Of course, Anita already knew about my disability and had openly and flatteringly brought it up in her email.
One of her phrases is, “I still don’t think I completely understand it all.” Put as a question, it could have been an invitation for me to leave my disability island and join her on the mainland. When I reply, I might offer to answer any questions she has. In our psychotherapy-solves-everything society, this would be standard advice. But I worry that doing so might come across as a challenge when we hardly know each other. I think I’ll give it time.
In the end, no simple answer, whether to why I hesitated at Anita’s compliment or how to handle it with grace. But my use of an island metaphor suggests that the source of my difficulty is an ingrained anxiety about apartness.
© Copyright 2015 by Adrian Spratt