Monday, July 7, 2008

Miracle Hunting

First--a public service announcement. Haveil Havalim #172, the Old Fogey Edition, is up at Daled Amos.

And now, allow me to present one of my pet peeves.

Post-bombing, I did a fair amount of public speaking. In the process, I met and heard about other people who had been injured and I got to see the responses of the outside world, of spectators, to these injuries. Combined with the reactions I collected to my own bombing I drew a interesting and disturbing picture of how the world in general or at least the world I know, views us Poor Sad Heroic Victims of Terror ®. Similar to the responses I noted to my account of the bombing, these reactions have nothing to do with the person who was actually injured, and everything to do with the viewer.

Many viewers are meaning and miracle hunting. We are useful to them. Many miracles and much meaning can be found in us. Viewers objectify us. They mine us and our stories for inspiration and happy endings; for their precious miracles and meaning. They ignore the past, present and future pain. They ignore whatever went on in-between then and now. They ignore reality.

Allow me to present the hospital PR specialist. She was giving a presentation about her work at a hospital, including her work with those injured in terrorist attacks. At one point, she told us about a young woman who had suffered severe burns. After a grueling and very extended period of treatment, the woman had recovered, though her hands were badly scarred. In a conversation with this woman, the young woman expressed concern that guys would notice that she had the hands of an old woman. The woman told us that she responded with a heartfelt "oh no, they will see a brave young woman!" Everyone in the audience applauded. Some of them cried

Because, you know, that is what most men are looking for: brave young women. Because most men look at women with a view of finding one that has an impressive poor sad heroic victim of terror story. As opposed to one that turns them on. I was appalled, though not surprised. Why not tell the girl the truth? Why treat her as though she were an idiot? She is right. The scars may make it tough, and in particular as long as she is self-conscious. Even if she is not self-conscious, yes, the scars will bother some guys. Period. But they will not bother all of them, and probably not even most. Tell her the truth. Attitude is everything. If she is cool with her scars, most guys will be as well. Be practical—help her to get the attitude.

But this woman was really not looking to help the young woman. Perhaps she thought she was. But seriously, who benefited here? The woman benefited from her answer. The audience benefited from her answer. I sincerely doubted that the young woman benefited. So, who was the answer for? If it was not for the young woman, why not? She was the one who had suffered. Why did the audience deserve a miracle and meaning more than she deserved an honest answer? More than she deserved to be treated like a thinking being as opposed to a symbol.

There was the patient I met, if "met" could even be considered the right word. He had suffered a serious head injury and was looking at years of therapy; and perhaps even spending the rest of his life in the hospital or a similar institution. To say that he was not with it at this point would be an understatement. Some years later, I do not remember how, I heard how this guy had told a friend that he wished he had died in the bombing. The person who related the story to me was appalled. How could this man think that way? His life was a miracle. How could he not realize that?

I do not remember how I responded; I probably said something non-committal and let it go. What I would have liked to say is: a miracle for whom? For this guy, condemned to spend his days, all day, every single day, trapped in his body, trapped in his own brain? What sort of future does he have? What sort of life? Can this even be considered a life? Why should he be content with his life? Because him being around makes you feel good? Because it gives you the warm fuzzies? Because then you can talk about the great medical care available in Israel? So that, after a full, satisfying day in your full, satisfying life you can look at him and feel inspired? You know—seeing the hand of G-d and how this guy being alive is such a miracle and blahblahblah? Is that supposed to satisfy him?

Would it satisfy you?

Where is the miracle? Maybe the miracle is that, after all this time, he got it together enough to express an opinion. Will you recognize that miracle, or will you pooh pooh his thoughts as though he were a silly child. "Oh, you silly boy! Now, you just settle down there. Shut up and continue to be inspiring".

In fact, I think he is being reasonable. I think he is being reasonable because, when I strip away the drama and ask myself "what if this were you", my reaction is pretty much in line with his. Of all the fates, serious head injuries scare me the most. My head, and not my body, is me. Every once in a while I will meet someone who suffered a head injury in a bombing or an accident or whatever, and who is severely impaired—who is no longer himself—as a result. They frighten me. I avoid these people…even though I realize that this means that I am not a particularly good person. I would love to be able to think "there but for the grace of G-d go I", but hell, for all I know, that could be me next week.

This man's fate would not be a miracle if it were me. Would it be a miracle if it were you?

I am not saying that there is no miracle here. I am not saying that a young girl with disfigured hands cannot meet and marry a fantastic man who will, indeed, see her as both brave and beautiful. Nor am I saying that it is impossible for a man who suffered a serious head injury cannot find meaning in his life. I am saying that life is not that simple. All the world is not a stage. The tragedies of others are not plays put on for your entertainment, or your benefit. If they manage to dig up miracles and meaning, these gems belong to them, and not to you.


Anonymous said...

In the case of the woman with the hands-----maybe she needed to regain some self-confidence...and merely hearing that from the PR specialist was enough. I have seen extremely attractive fat, thin, scarred,disfigured etc, people....what tends to make them attractive is their sense of self-- and their confidence. It's rarely that they look "perfect." (granted, those people do exist...but they are oh so rare)

I remember one particular guy I met without a leg...the girls couldn't get enough of him and it had nothing to do with the circumstances of his leg (we never even knew what happened to him--be it war, bombing, car accident or birth defect). he was just confident and attractive.

Some people need to hear the truth--yes your scars look bad. Others would rather hear--no no, no one will notice--whether that is true or not...that's how they get attitude.

...and there has been many a person who has asked a question about their looks--dafka b/c they are insecure and they want to reassured. And sometimes that's all they need.

Since it's usually a criticism that spurs me to wite, let me say that I've been reading you for a while...and I very much enjoy your honesty and forthrightness and the grace and with with which you deliver your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Yet another thought-provoking post, and I couldn't agree with you more.

When we were going through all of our problems, losses, etc (and especially when we were dealing with our prematurely born first child), I felt like I was being thrust onto a pedestal. People were telling me how "brave" I was for everything that we were forced to endure (as though we had a choice!), going out of their way to compare their own situations to ours and then pointing out that they couldn't possibly make such a comparison, given "all that we were going through", and so on. It was like I'd suddenly become the token yardstick for the measurement of suffering ("but of course, our situation isn't as bad as yours..."), and it was emotionally draining, to say the least.

People need to feel inspired, and that inspiration is often derived from the situations around them. One person's tragedy is another person's miracle/inspiration, whether we like it or not.

As for the PR specialist's response, on the one hand, I agree with you in that the young woman should be told the truth (which she'd probably discover on her own at some point anyway). On the other hand, a big part of the PR specialist's job is positive promotion, and she knew that giving the audience the "brave young woman" comment would evoke the more desired response than if she had offered a more nuanced answer. Of course, you'll probably never know what the PR specialist might have told the woman in private, and whether her answer to the woman's question behind closed doors was actually more realistic than what she fed to the audience.

Joshua B. Toas said...

Reading your blog brings clarity to so many issues. Your points here seem so obvious, but they really aren't which is what makes them so profound. I guess, maybe life would be better if someone told the PR person that the truth may be better, I'm not sure she really meant any harm or knew any better.

Ahuva said...

What you're saying is true, but what the PR woman said was also true. The big question is what did that woman need to hear in order to feel better about herself and get on with her life? Sometimes half-truths help. Maybe the PR specialist saw those words as the first step on the path towards helping her to be cool with her scars.

I've always liked to tell myself that my flaws are filters to keep out the kind of man I don't want to deal with. Sometimes it helps.

Brain trauma scares me too.. I wouldn't have wanted to survive that either.

Anonymous said...

AMEN, Sister!

Anonymous said...

" Politicians understand well the power of words to influence attitude and behavior.
People are more comfortable hearing about a military action than a war even though they mean the same thing.
We would rather hear of collateral damage than to be told that civilian property was accidentally destroyed; and we are not desturbed hearing of friendly fire as we would be to hear what it really means - our soldiers shot at our own forces.
And, of course, watching the morning news we are less moved being told of casualties, than we would be if the reporter said what that meant: deaths.
Most of know what these words "really mean" but again, that doesn't matter.
It's how we digest the information,
and language is essential to that proces"

I would not be surprised to find out that the woman with the burned hands was made up to guide you listeners into a certain direction.

Gila said...

Couple responses:

Was the PR specialist just trying to help the young woman? No. The young woman was not there. The PR specialist was speaking to a audience comprised of people who had no connection whatsoever to the young woman, and who did not even live in the same country as the young woman. Had she qualified her remarks in some way "I told her this to achieve xyz", then yes, I might agree with you--that she told the young woman one thing in order to boost her self confidence and was telling us a more realistic take. But based on her tone and the way she related the story, she was miracle mining.

Did she tell the young woman something different? Possibly. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that she may have tried to spoon-feed her the same lines. Lord knows I have gotten enough of them, and this even when I have made it abundantly clear that they do nothing to help me. Again--people very often come out with this stuff for thier own benefit, and not for the benefit of the people they are speaking to.

Was the young woman made up? Almost certainly not. I have heard my fair share of stories (and have actually been the subject of some of these stories) and have actually met the subjects on certain occassions. There is no need to make this stuff up (though dramatizing it is always welcome)--reality provides it in spades.

Anonymous said...

"they see a brave young woman" could be a line out of an Eisenstein movie.

L'Shmoah said...

Gila, I am so appreciative of what you wrote. I am a married (twice) 49 year old woman with a disability. I wear hearing aids. I have done so since age 4. While my hearing loss is severe, my ability to communicate is excellent. I speak very well, I use the telephone, watch TV (albeit these days with Closed Captioning), and I basically "pass" for a hearing person. However...
I am married now, 9 years. For five years, prior to my marriage, I spent my time hunting for a husband. I used all avenues available to me: personals, the internet, Jewish singles events, Shabbatonim, and Shadchanim.
It was the latter, Shadchanim, which caused me the most pain. Not ONCE did a Shadchan call and offer to set me up with a "normal" man. ALL offers were to match me with another deaf or otherly disabled man. Now, I would have had no problem dating another disabled person -- but not BECAUSE they were disabled. In fact, shortly after I had been dating my husband (to-be at that time), and we knew it was serious, I received a call from a Shadchan who, again, wanted to fix me up with a nice disabled man. I, of course, informed her that I was no longer available, to which she replied Mazal Tov and inquired about the "lucky" man. I then proceeded to inform her about him, to which I received a gushing and enthusiastic response: "Oh yes, I have heard of him. He is a very eligible man and is at the top of many of our lists!" I could only feel anger when I responded -- "Then why were you not calling me to tell me about HIM? Did you not consider him for me? Or is he too normal for me?" As you can guess, she must have been embarrassed and she had no response for me.

Yes, the girl with the disfigured hands may have a difficult time dating. But yes, ATTITUDE is 100% what is going to help her. And a platitude that men are looking for "brave women" assumes the girl is stupid. My husband was looking for a smart, pretty woman who would turn him on. ALL men want that. It so happens that I am smart, I am attractive, and I just happen to also wear hearing aids. THAT is the attitude the girl must take.

Thank you, Gila, for an insightful post.


Gila said...


You called it!

Re: the Shadchan, this must explain why, every time I go to a shadchan, I am set up with guys who are "off", to put it mildly. I have yet to be set up on a date by a shadchan with a guy who has his act in gear. Only on rare occasions am I set up with someone who is not actually mentally borderline.

I HATE shadchanim!