Today is a significant one in world history. No matter which side of the fence we stand on, we have no choice but to accept. Around the world, governments are also preparing to show acceptance. And yet, there seems to be a global sense of uncertainty, and fear.
I fear for the minorities. I fear for acceptance. For tolerance. And I am reminded of something I wrote a few years ago for 1000 voices speak for compassion, which I think is as relevant today as it was then, if not more so.
I don’t like moths. I don’t like how they enter my house uninvited, fluttering blindly about, and cluster in a seething panic around any available light source. The frenzied flapping of their dull, tattered wings gives me the creeps.
But I love butterflies. When they gate-crash, I feel privileged, blessed, and patiently herd them out to freedom for fear their short, beautiful lives might meet an untimely end within my four walls.
When I found a glorious creature with stunning red and black markings walking determinedly across my doormat one spring morning, I assumed he was a newly hatched butterfly ready to test his wings. I opened the door respectfully, and watched him take flight.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was actually a day-flying cinnabar moth. Who knew that moths could be so gorgeous, or that some of them flew by day and not in the shadow of night?
I was struck, then, by my own superficiality. Me, who should know better. I know how it feels to be judged on appearance, and to be found lacking. I know how it feels to be probed skin-deep, and rejected. Is the sum of our worth truly wrapped up in the symmetry of our faces and the slender lines of our bodies?
I suspect it’s a primeval thing, some kind of survival skill buried deep within that well of instinctual behaviour we no longer understand or need. Perhaps surrounding ourselves with beauty masks something ugly inside that we try to suppress. Perhaps associating with the beautiful makes us feel good about ourselves. Maybe it ‘rubs off on us’.
Of course, we’re in denial. We say brave words, like ‘Beauty is skin-deep’, or ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, or ‘Sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.’ Admit it; they’re just empty words. We don’t live by them. And words hold enormous power. Too many young people have ended their lives after being bullied. Abused with words. They didn’t feel accepted.
Acceptance, whether it’s social or personal, requires approval and a non-judgmental state of mind. Being accepted gives us a sense of belonging. Ultimately, that’s what we all want. It’s what we’re all searching for in our own convoluted ways. But does being beautiful increase the chances of being accepted?
I was bullied at school, for many reasons; I wore thick glasses with National Health frames (definitely not beautiful), I didn’t speak with the local accent, nor was I a local girl, and I arrived in school only six weeks before the end of the school year. Bonds and social groups had already been formed. There was no peer pressure to try and ‘fit in’; I was a stranger, I looked and sounded different, and I simply wasn’t wanted. Boy, did they let me know it.
When I left school, I rebelled against this unfriendly society which had not found it possible to accept me. I defied their traditional, conservative, insular attitude.
It was the 80s: electronic music, big hair, frilly clothes and wild makeup which looked more like art. These young people were different. The disguise made us all look and feel beautiful. We were connected, united. I hid behind this flamboyant façade: it was an acceptance of sorts.
But I had to grow up. I didn’t want to work in an office or in a factory, so I joined the RAF instead. The RAF didn’t want us to be different, individual, unique; they wanted us all to be the same, their kind of same. Thrown into what seemed like chaos to us, a disparate band of females learned to pull together, accept one another, and become a team. Then the RAF split us up and sent us reeling in different directions, but it didn’t matter, because by then we were part of the machine. Acceptance was built in.
The tides of time washed me in its waters, sometimes soothing, sometimes stormy, but always eventful. I drifted, adding the roles of wife and mother to life’s CV. That’s when I ran aground, the meaning of acceptance suddenly rocketing to a whole new level.
Carys came into our lives. She was born with a rare syndrome, but we counted ourselves lucky, for she was never expected to live at all. Two days later, a tangle of blood vessels began to bloom on her forehead. It was the beginnings of a birthmark, a haemangioma, and it grew with a speed and virulence which astounded me.
Day by day it expanded, turning a deep, shiny red, a sinister parasite claiming its place on my daughter’s face. The surface began to wrinkle and pucker, forming little hills and valleys, a menacing roseate island in the soft smooth sea of her forehead.
People love to look at babies, have you noticed? A brief dip into Facebook or Pinterest throws up endless rounds of cute or amusing baby pictures with associated entertaining quotes. When my two sons were babies, I received many smiles and compliments from strangers, who looked into the stroller upon my boys’ perfect faces.
That didn’t happen with Carys. Oh, they gawped eagerly enough. Sometimes, they raised their eyes to mine in shock. Mostly, they just craned their necks and stared at my little girl as if she was something they had just scraped off the bottom of their shoe.
I can’t describe the pain that ripped through me. She was so innocent, had done nothing to anyone, just fought fiercely against all the odds to cling to the dirty, ragged scrap of life tossed her way.
When she was only four months old, she endured a long surgery to remove this ugly complex lump in the hope of saving her sight. With the haemangioma gone, I thought we would simply disappear into the masses, nothing worth seeing here. But I was wrong.
The wound developed a thick black crust. The edges were loose, and constantly seeped, but the doctors were happy, it was progressing exactly as they wanted. Now when people stared at Carys, their gaze quickly shifted to us, her parents, and I could see what they were thinking; were we simply neglectful parents, or abusive ones?
Carys, and other children like her, fall into a minority group which society as a whole has not yet found itself able to fully accept. True acceptance would, by definition, require the majority to allow the full integration and participation of the minority in all aspects of society. Even in these enlightened times, that doesn’t happen.
For example, Carys must go to a ‘special school’, which is tucked well away from the community where she lives. There is no other option. I resent that. Although the school is excellent, I would like her to attend our local school, which ideally should have an attached special care unit for disabled children.
How wonderful if Carys could be visited by her brothers during her day at school; how wonderful if the children from the mainstream school could integrate with the disabled children, help them, play with them at break, grow up never being afraid of them or developing ignorance and prejudice against them.
It’s as if society doesn’t want to be affronted by the sight, or blight, of disabled people. We hide them away and pretend they don’t exist. Perhaps their physical deformity reminds us of our own inner ugliness, something we’d rather ignore.
When participation in society is confined to only certain areas, then the majority is only practicing tolerance, not true acceptance. Tolerance and acceptance are not the same.
A decade later, Carys’s haemangioma is just a shadow of its former self; the scar has faded, but she still looks obviously ‘different’. The dangers of her syndrome are hidden within, where they can’t be seen and gawked at. People still stare, but not as much. I am less inclined to accept rudeness, but am also better able to let it go; I have grown, learned to tolerate and yes, accept these episodes of weakness from strangers.
Being Carys’s parent has broken my heart many times over, and filled and refilled it with more love and hope than I ever thought possible. She has taught me so much about what’s really important.
I want many things out of life for my sons. I work hard to set their feet on the path to achieving them. For Carys, the list is much shorter and simpler; happiness, love and a life as free from pain as possible.
And most of all, acceptance. Not just for Carys, and other children like her, but for all living beings.