A Lesson in Diversity from “The Cross-eyed Lion”
I’ll bet that if asked you if you appreciate and celebrate differences, you would respond that indeed you do.
I’d also bet that there are not many people who consider themselves elitest or intolerant of differences.
So when the topic of embracing diversity comes up, many wonder what the big deal is.
I have found that we are often oblivious to our own real reactions to differences.
And it starts young.
I encountered my first-hand experience of people’s real reaction to difference when I was merely seven years old and in the 2nd grade.
Up until the age of seven, I was a child that would get much attention from my appearance. Long blonde hair and big yellow-green “lion” eyes on a toddler provide fodder for superficial approval and favorable social reviews from total strangers.
Until, at the age of seven, I developed what is known as a “lazy eye” in my right eye. My formerly beautiful yellow-green right eye crossed inward all the way to the bridge of my nose and remained that way all the time. (Commonly caused by a weak eye muscle.)
And there it was.
Almost overnight I went from being heralded as socially adorable to strange, weird, and different. My best friends at school no longer wanted to play with me. Kids would push me away and chant loudly: “you’re a cross-eyed lion”!
People on the street would stare and whisper, “Look at that girl” to one another—but not with the admiration they had expressed in the past.
It was as if overnight I had become a completely different person.
I had experienced what I know now from my studies of neuroscience, what happens when our human brains perceive “difference”. Difference can trigger a “threat” response in our brain’s amygdala, which activates fear of what we automatically don’t recognize as “like us” or part of our “group”.
I remember that year vividly as if it was yesterday. I cried a lot, and felt very deeply what it was like to be considered “different”. My temporary disability was neither embraced nor celebrated, but rather it was feared and abhorred.
Fortunately, my “difference” was corrected by eye surgery in the third grade, and my eye was instantly straight again. Everything was back to “normal” and changed again. Kids wanted to play with me again. People were back to admiring my “beautiful lion-esque” eyes and pointing at me in approval.
But I was not the same. I had changed forever at the age of eight. I had felt the deep isolation, pain, and rejection of being perceived as “different”, even with a small disability.
My empathy and compassion for those not like me were heightened forever, as I even if briefly, experienced a bit of what it feels like to be shunned for something external and superficial over which I had no control.
So this week I ask you just a few simple questions about “embracing diversity”:
- Do you truly seek to understand the point of view of those who are different from you?
- Do you say you accept and tolerate those who are different than you, but actually exclude them without realizing it?
- Do you really see past the superficial external surface differences into the true internal similarities we all have as humans?
As always, I’d love to hear about your experiences in this area. Drop me a note…