An acquaintance walked up, punched me on the shoulder and jovially called out, “How’s it going, big guy?” In that moment I was reminded again that I am exceptional. I am six feet eight inches tall and weigh 325 pounds, so I am mostly known for my exceptional size. Whatever other attributes, skills or abilities I might possess, they all pale in comparison to my size. Because I am such a large man, this acquaintance assumed that he could punch me. He assumed that I don’t experience pain in the normal way that others do. He hit me much, much harder than he would have had I been a smaller person, because he assumed that my giant body somehow makes me impervious to pain. It’s a scenario that has played out often in my life.
What he didn’t know was that I was awaiting surgery at the time to deal with severe discomfort in my shoulder. The lightest tap produced excruciating pain. I wanted to retaliate, to rage against him, but then I remembered the other thing that giants are supposed to be – gentle. Gentle giants are supposed to just grin and bear it. When we see people who are exceptional, we often make assumptions about them; assumptions that may have no basis in reality and that can damage relationship and cause unnecessary suffering.
To paraphrase Will Rogers, we are all exceptional, just in different ways. Some of our exceptionality is visible and some is hidden. We love to categorize people, to place them in boxes. We are often sure we are right and assume things about them regardless of evidence. There are tall people and short people. There are people who can figure out how to get us to Mars and there are people who have a hard time figuring out how to get to the store down the street. There are people who are confident and people who are fearful. There are those of us who fit into what we like to call “normal” categories and then there are outliers who don’t fit into “normal.” Yet each of us, even the most “average,” is exceptional in our own way.
My sister, who suffers from cerebral palsy, walks with a severe limp and is unsteady on her feet. She lives in constant pain because of the spastic nature of her muscles and because of the numerous corrective surgeries she had as a child. I am always amazed at the grace she exhibits in her suffering. She has a specially-trained service dog who makes her life much easier. The dog can brace himself to support her weight. He can fetch things for her and get help should she fall. But my sister regularly runs into people who don’t believe she truly needs the dog. Perhaps out of fear or ignorance, people try to have her and her dog removed from stores, restaurants and other public places. There are those who don’t think she should have the preferred parking spot in front of the store and who ignore the laws that set aside those parking spots for people like her. In conversations and confrontations with them, she has been told that she is just taking up space and not worth having around. She has been subjected to every form of vulgar expletive. People can be very mean to those they deem exceptional and “privileged.” Sometimes I wonder what they would think if they had to spend just one night in the pain she lives daily. People who are exceptional often live pain-filled lives.
My son is godparent to a seven year old girl who was born missing part of her brain. Her mother refused the option of abortion and now faces the reality of raising a severely-challenged daughter. My son takes this little girl into his heart and home each weekend to offer respite care to her mother. It is a delight for our family to have her and her sister in our lives. We call her the “I love you” girl because of a little game she plays with us where she says, “I, I, I...” until one of us says, “love...” and then she responds with a devastatingly beautiful smile, claps her hands loudly and shouts, “YOU!” She then blows a kiss. The “I love you” girl is a medical miracle, but she will never be able to graduate from school or hold a job. Some of us think she would make a great Wal-Mart greeter since she says a cheerful hi to everyone she meets, but the reality is that she will always need extensive support.
As society’s resources become scarcer and life is valued by its economic worth, people like the “I love you” girl are more easily shoved aside. Before she ever made it into this world, doctors wanted to abort her since she was considered “not viable.” When closely examined, the words “not viable” can quickly get turned into “not valuable.” The medical community assured her mother that this baby would likely not survive her birth and would be on total life support if she did. Rather than dwelling on the sanctity of life, the discussion was always about viability. Few assumed she would reach age seven and rip open presents at our Christmas gathering. We wonder what the future holds for her. It can be terrifying to be exceptional, an outlier. In a society driven by values of cost and benefit, she might be declared unnecessary, a burden.
Of course, there are other kinds of exceptionality as well. There are those who have high intelligence quotients and are forced to deal with the lofty expectations of those in the education world. We pressure the best and the brightest to be best and brightest. We may assume that because one child was precocious, other children in the family will be equally so. My older sister was valedictorian of every class she was ever part of and when I came along there was a good deal of assumption that I would be just like her. I struggled with learning disabilities and ADD and was a poor student. I soon recognized that I was a disappointment, but it took a good while for me to understand the pressure my sister had to deal with as she faced society’s expectations of her. High expectations can be as hard to experience as low ones.
The daughter of a friend of mine was given a scholarship to the California Institute of Technology. At a gathering of parents, my friend was reminded that his daughter, who had been exceptional all through elementary and high school, might suddenly find herself to be “average.” He was told that the adjustment would be difficult and that his daughter would have to learn to live with different expectations. Being exceptionally skilled or exceptionally talented or exceptionally bright creates its own hardships.
We often pressure those who show athletic ability to take up sport. We urge those who show aptitude for music to play an instrument. I remember my wife telling me that my extremely tall sons did not love basketball like I did and that I should allow them to pursue other activities. My sons are artists and storytellers and only played basketball because I had insisted they do so. We tend to pigeonhole people and assume that because they have certain attributes or skills that they must spend their life in those pursuits.
There are, of course, benefits to being exceptional. I rather enjoy handing down items from a top shelf to people who might not be able to reach them without a ladder. Well, most days I do. What I do thoroughly enjoy is hearing stories. I love hearing how God shapes each of us and that, despite the slash of sin, our unique identity and our inimitable image-bearing of our Creator is expressed so beautifully and exceptionally in each one of us. It takes time and patience to pursue others, to question each other without assumption, and to hear the stories behind our exceptionality. It takes grace to imagine what life looks like through another’s eyes and grace to accept our differences. May we all be filled with such grace.