Erasing Beauty

“You can never assume that someone is ‘faking’ [a disability] or even that a stranger who doesn’t appear to be disabled isn’t suffering from chronic pain or something else that impairs their ability to do things that able-bodied people take for granted,” wrote Domi Shoemaker on Facebook in response to “Yes, Ableism Is Seriously a Thing.”

I’d recently been considering something similar, how people’s pain—chronic pain—can be completely invisible. As a teacher, I’d assume that the perky, young, fashionable student showing up every day cheerfully had not yet faced any challenges in her life. Then—*WHAM*—she’d turn in a memoir draft about surviving horrific abuse, or enduring homelessness, or overcoming addiction.

People’s pain, their suffering, their heartache, do not always leave visible marks; it doesn’t mean the pain is not there, maybe even during the very moments you interact with them.

I remember one student who came to class every day with her best friend, both of them manicured, hair styled just-so, fashionable outfits, and giant cups of Starbucks coffee sipped neatly through straws. They were both good students, and I enjoyed having them in class. Because of their stylish looks and breezy attitudes, I assumed they’d had pretty smooth lives, were on their way to the careers they wanted, would buy houses next door to each other, and marry brothers or best friends.

Well, even if that does become their destiny, a cute house and white picket fence do not mean one’s past has been sunny and sweet.

One day after class, the student stayed after to talk with me. Her friend either stood by her or waited outside; I can’t remember. We’d discussed some readings in class that I no longer recall, but they prompted her to tell me her story.

Standing there, manicured hand on hip of trendy jeans, Starbucks held aloft in the other hand, dark hair straightened and smoothed into a crisp bob, she told me she’d been homeless.

After suffering all kinds of abuse at home, she ran away as a teenager. She quickly became homeless, figured out how to live on the streets, and begged for money.

She told me that the worst part of it was not when people said hateful things to her or refused to give her money, it was the people who ignored her completely, as if she were invisible, looking right past her, as if she and all of her efforts to survive did not exist.

Well, one thing led to another: selling drugs to make money to get off the streets, taking those drugs to take to make the streets bearable, numerous illegal activities to support drug habit, and then: jail.

You see what I mean by how you never know what a person has suffered or is suffering? This outgoing, funny, smart, hard-working student had lived on the streets and then behind bars.

Maybe I’m taking the point of the article Domi posted one step further. As the article argues—you often can’t see a person’s pain, physical or mental, or what burdens they shoulder as they go about their day. Similarly, when you think “inmate” or “addict” or “homeless,” some of the most delightful people you interact with in any given day, might have been one or all three of those things.

People are resilient and strong. Pain and suffering do not always erase beauty or mute cheerfulness. Thank goodness for that.

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5 Responses to Erasing Beauty

  1. Rose L. says:

    I work at a college and have seen many young people who have been through difficult times. It always broke my heart. One young girl I met who was so smart and creative had been abandoned by her mother when she was 15–her mother literally moved away while she was at school! She spent nights at friends homes moving around a lot. She got a part time job and continued school, determined to pursue her education.
    Often people will remark that those on the street are just lazy or are crazy or alcoholic or druggies, and yes, maybe some. But there are people who just lost it all and are seeking a meal or to be able to buy their family food. There are still not enough jobs for everyone.
    I always think-there but for the Grace of God, …it could be me.

  2. Chelsea says:

    My students surprise me like this too; their personal examples in papers are sometimes so surprising and heart-wrenching, particularly those who are first generation Americans, helping their parents navigate the public sphere as tiny children, or watching them be chided or scorned due to language barriers.

  3. Pingback: Emptiness and Buzz Lightyear Shampoo | All But The Kitchen Sink

  4. tristac says:

    Chelsea & Rose — I’m sorry it took me so long to reply, but I appreciated both of your comments. When I taught at a community college, it drove me CRAZY when people would say they were preparing students for “The Real World,” as if the “Big, Bad, Dramatic Real World” was not sitting right there in our classrooms and online in all its beauty, challenge, pain, and power.

  5. tristac says:

    Here’s a great point another friend emailed me about this post and her work with a diverse range of people in need of some support and help: Acceptance, without assumption & judgement, allows us to connect with each other no matter the circumstance. We all suffer pain.

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