Wrestling with Ignorance

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I am fortunate to work for a client who is intelligent, thoughtful, kind, generous, slow to criticize, quick to smile and be witty, and equipped with a sneaky sense of humor that delights you as much as it catches you off guard. He always looks you straight in the eyes with a genuine and singular focus-- to understand and be understood.  He never asks for more than can be expected and is consistently grateful for the work provided. For all these strengths of character, I respect him. The fact that he’s quadriplegic barely enters my mind.

Until recently, when an awkward comment came flying out of my mouth. The words revealed my ignorance, grabbed my conscience, and wrestled my sense of self-respect to the floor. During a completely normal every day, meeting halfway down a hallway in which his wheelchair width makes a narrow passage for both of us to fit through, we were like any two people who try to negotiate who goes first in a jagged, back and forth dance of politeness. However, I slipped on my words as I tried to make light of the situation by saying, “We could arm wrestle for it?”

In any other situation, the comment may have flowed like water under the bridge, but obviously in this situation, considering his physical limitations, my ignorance was kicking me in the butt.  In that moment, my mind immediately reeled trying desperately to pull back in the words. I felt the dangerously awkward silence and saw his puzzled polite smile as the comment hit the airwaves in the hallway like a giant black sharpie on Grandma’s living room walls. We did our best to share the narrow hall, he was carefully positioning his wheelchair and I was shrinking passed in embarrassment.  As the reality of what had I said sank in, I felt my words attach to me like a 2-ton Navy ship anchor going down fast with no sense of where the bottom may be.

When I did come up for air, after eating humble pie and feeling more than horrible, I realized not only did I owe an apology, I also owed a debt of gratitude.  I realized that I had been focusing predominantly on his strengths, and ignoring his physical limitations. So, the respect I had for him was made shallow with ignorance; And at worst, was hurtful. I was wrestling with my own ignorance.

He helped me open my eyes to the fact that to truly respect someone, we must be willing to see both their strengths and limitations. True respect is being willing to see the whole person just as they are. To accept and see without ignorance. I am grateful to work for someone who gives me an opportunity to be a genuinely more respectful person.