Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was one of my favorite books in high school. It was probably the only book I read at the time that I couldn’t seem to put down. As I’ve gotten older, I suspect my connection to the book was a bit deeper due to my living with a “difference”. Not having hands played a part in my struggle for identity at the time. I know all teenagers struggle with identity but being physically different always made it hard to figure out where I fit in. My capabilities were always being judged. I was always being judged. It was confusing and frustrating. As a kid, I always feared what others would say about me and how I would be ridiculed when entering new environments. Ellison’s narrative prompted the beginning of a period of internal and external self-acceptance as well as the acceptance of how others would judge me based on my condition. Ellison’s book left me with several realizations that helped me move away from the fear of ridicule that accompanied being born without hands.
“And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own.”
When you are the only kid in your class, your school, your neighborhood without hands it’s hard to figure out where you belong. I wasn’t “ normal” and everyone else was. I remember trying to hide my hands and do everything I could to fit in. “To go in everyone’s way but my own”… To make my difference as unnoticeable as possible. If the other kids were doing it, I wanted to fit in the way they did. Sometimes, I was ashamed and the only solution seemed to be avoiding the reality of my circumstance by trying to blend in with everyone else. Be “normal”. However, one thing about “normal”, is that it doesn’t exist. “Normal” doesn’t exist because “normal” is relative. This means trying to imitate or copy others to blend in wouldn’t solve my problems. In fact, I learned, it only made them worse at times. I could not do things the way everyone else did them.
“I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.”
― Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
No matter what I would do to “ fit in” or how nice I would be, the ridicule would still come. I would still be judged. (I would still be picked last for soccer….SOCCER?! You don’t even need hands to play soccer.) There would always be someone who would point, laugh, or tell me what I would never be able to do. And when you’re looking outside of yourself to find out where you belong, listening to those voices will only result in you getting lost. There were times when I was lost. All I knew was, that no matter what, I was not like everyone else and I’d be reminded on a daily basis. (On my best days and my worst days.) But what I ended up learning around the age of 15 is that I can’t be anyone but myself. I didn’t have to belong according to some external standard set by the world around me. I realized that my life is my experience and it is up to me to dictate the quality of that experience. If you only get one chance to experience this life, you have to embrace your uniqueness and learn as much about YOURSELF as you do the world around you. No one else can tell you who you are and you shouldn’t let them.
“They could laugh at him but they couldn’t ignore him”
Even when you finally do accept who you are, people will still laugh, ridicule, and judge you. It’s inevitable. Get over it. I don’t have hands and that won’t change. The solution is to focus on what you love and growing your talents. My mom used to tell me, “ let people talk. The ones who love you will and the ones who don’t… won’t.” When people talk about you or judge you, you’ll realize that the very action of doing so means you ARE RELEVANT. And as long as you are growing, learning and getting better…people can laugh at you but they won’t be able ignore you.
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
I don’t have hands and people still judge me because of it to this day. They will do the same to you. People will judge you but NEVER allow them to dictate who you are and who you will become. Take pride in the light that exists within and share it when you get the opportunity. To the people that matter and the ones who really love you, you’ll never be “invisible.” Loved ones will see your depth, your warmth, your essence…they will see YOU. Everyone else is just passing through and that is ok too…let them. The important thing is that you ALWAYS know who you are and be confident in your own way.
Accepting the fact that we can be “invisible” to those who don’t really know us can give us freedom. People will always have something to say about you whether you are tall, short, skinny, fat, brown, white, orange, missing hands, in a wheelchair, etc. Don’t let people’s opinions dictate who you are because, at the end of the day, this journey called “life” is yours and no one else’s. Embrace your quirks or the things that make you different. I promise, the people who are busy judging you won’t be living their life because they will be to busy watching yours. So smile at them, wave, and let them enjoy the show….This your life…so if you are worried about people judging you…GET OVER IT.