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My heart aches. My mind circles around simple words. Perceptions of people. And what they do to our spirits.

My girlfriend and I were called “fucking lesbians” as we walked down the street last week. That was a first.

We were on our way home from a candlelight memorial. A woman was murdered in downtown Hamilton. Her body was discovered under a pile of rubble and garbage. She was regularly degraded and insulted by those around her because of her addiction and mental health issues. Treated in life and death like a piece of trash.

On my way home, I watched as others watched a person in a wheelchair get on the bus. Watched them judge her appearance, her scent, her speech. Saw fear, disgust, shame in their eyes. Felt it rise in my own. I thought, if I could just look past her disability, her appearance, maybe I would see something more. Maybe I would notice her smile towards the infant in a stroller across from her, the child enraptured by this stranger’s beautiful face.

These moments pile up in my mind like dirty laundry. Distinct instances that all seem to be made of the same thread.

We all do these things, in different ways. Maybe we refer to the ‘crazies’ downtown. Or we meet someone with an intellectual disability on the bus and later joke about how uncomfortable it made us feel.  Or we pity the woman in the wheel chair. Or we say “that’s so retarded.” I have done all of these things.

I know how seemingly harmless and innocent words perpetuate negative stereotypes. I know how we isolate those who are different from us. Perhaps because of our ignorance, perhaps because of our fear.

Jean Vanier describes this fear as an unwillingness to accept our own humanity – our vulnerability, our eventual death. We fear people who have severe disabilities because they challenge us to face our own brokenness, our need for one another.

I also know how words can free us. Authenticity in another is contagious. Being with someone who accepts themselves in gift and weakness empowers me. I know that being around people who sing unabashedly, embracing their own imperfect voices for the sheer joy of melody and celebration, frees me to do the same.

On Friday I listened as Robert Pio Hajjar, founder of Ideal Way – an organization that advocates for people with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, shared his journey. “Yes, I have a disability. But I ask you to see my ability.”

We are not very good at treating people like people. I disable you when I judge you. I am discrediting your capacity to be human when all I can see is your limitations.  And in doing so, I am discrediting my own.

I want to move away from fear or pity for those who are different than me, to a place of celebration. I want to embrace your humanity. I want to, like the infant in the stroller, look past your vulnerability and find the beauty in your smile. Past limitations to see possibilities. I refuse to disable people with my words and actions.

By embracing your weakness, I accept my own. I find my humanity reflected in yours.

Guy: “As a sign of my tender love for you, darling, I bought you flowers grown in an impoverished country by an exploited workforce who’ve been paid starvation wages and exposed to sterility inducing pesticides…”

Girl: “Oh sweetheart, you shouldn’t have.”

I pretend to be a cynic when it comes to this heart-shaped holiday in the middle of winter, but the truth is I’m a sucker for romance.  If you want to see me gush, give me a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan chick flick and be sure to pass the tissues.  I blame this weakness on my mother and the films she exposed me to in my formative adolescent years.  Please don’t judge.

One of the guys I live with has his birthday on Valentines Day.  We’ve had red and pink decorations taped all over the walls since the Christmas tree came down in mid-January.  Brian is the kind of guy who knows how to live a moment deeply.  His enthusiasm for things is contagious.  So we’ve been building up to the big V-day for what feels like forever.  It’s given me some time to reflect on what the day should mean to me.  Like Christmas, I am saddened by the over-commercialization of the holiday, but I think there is something important in celebrating love.  Do we need a day on the calendar to remind us to do this?  Is Valentine’s Day just for couples?  Love certainly isn’t.

Of course, the love that grows between a couple is unlike the love that grows between a mother and a daughter, or two friends, or siblings.  We toss the L word around like a frisbee.  I could say “I love sushi” and “I love you” in the same breath.  The word carries different weights depending on context.  I think one of the easiest mistakes for young couples to make is confusing the love of a moment with being “in love.”  It’s so easy for those three words to slip off the tongue when what one really means is “I love how you make me feel.”

Somewhere along the path I picked up a fear of the vulnerability that accompanies love.  The process of seeing and being seen triggers a flight instinct in me. It’s not so much the ‘love’ part that scares me as the possibility of that love not lasting and the risk inherent in trusting another human being. Brene Brown writes,

Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. We try to numb vulnerability. But you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t numb vulnerability, grief, shame, fear, and disappointment, without numbing joy, gratitude, happiness. ‎But there is another way. To let ourselves be seen. To love with our whole hearts, even though there is no guarantee. To practice gratitude and joy. To believe that you are enough. Yes, you are imperfect. You are wired for struggle. But you are worthy of love and belonging.

About a month ago I wrote a post entitled “Love is.”  My high-school English teacher would call that a sentence fragment.  Or maybe not – ‘love’ being the subject, and ‘is’ being the verb. Love is. Love exists. I am sure of it. So why can’t I say what it is? I googled “how do you know when you’re in love” for research purposes.  Thankfully there are more than 627,000,000 websites to answer my question.  I haven’t yet seen “How Do You Know” (the newest rom-com trying to answer that question), but something tells me Hollywood doesn’t have the answer I’m looking for either.

Is it enough that love exists, without needing to quantify and define it? If centuries of philosophers and poets and painters haven’t been able to exhaust the subject, what makes me think I, with my very limited experience, will be able to do so?  Still, I feel this compulsive need to try to label and categorize and box my experience, in order to take away the risk of it all, to take away the uncertainty and mystery of the ‘falling’ part.  I’ve been sky-diving before, I should be okay with free-fall.  The trouble is not knowing where I am, or rather we are, going to land.

When I began writing, I hoped it would lead me through the process of identifying, facing and overcoming this fear of love.  Of course, it’s not that easy.  A friend just posted this quote on her facebook page:

“…their whole purpose was to remove all mystery, as if mystery were the enemy and certainty were what we were looking for.”

All I can do is surrender to the mystery.  I still can’t say I know what love is, or how far she and I will fall.  I am left with only a choice – to consciously, in each moment, embrace this something that is growing between us, especially in those moments when my flight instinct kicks in.  In each moment, I choose to let go of the control I think I need and embrace the one I love whole-heartedly, in vulnerability.  To see her and be seen.

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