Stay Just As You Are

diversityI remember a time when working for IBM meant that one would wear a pin stripe suit, white button down shirt, tie, and wing tip shoes. The world of computing has certainly changed. Now the dress code at most tech companies is generally quite casual, if there is one at all. In the twenty first century we have moved farther and farther away from conformity. The trend today is to be who you really are, not some preconceived notion of what is normal. Most of us have come to realize that the uniqueness of each human being is preferable to sameness and yet it can still be difficult for some among us to admit to how they truly wish to live without being abused by those who refuse to understand.

Human history has been filled with taboos as well as great freedoms. The Greek men who participated in the first Olympic games did so in the nude. The people who lived then believed the male body was quite beautiful and something to celebrate rather than hide. The spectators thought nothing of seeing their favorite champions perform feats of athletic prowess without benefit of clothing. It was simply the way things were. Somewhere through the centuries we became a bit more prudish and such a public display of the human form is not likely to occur again in a sporting venue for a very long time.

As people we developed mores and customs in an attempt to moderate behavior, many of which were derived from religious beliefs. While there are certain universal ideas such as a banning murder, the rules for mankind have often been far different from the way things are today. There have been societies ruled totally by women and those in which slavery was considered the norm. We have slowly but surely moved toward a world in which more and more people have the right to free expression with few limits. We claim to value life as something special and precious and yet there are still those who want to dictate how others should look and act and even feel.

I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones. My favorite character is Tyrion Lannister, a most unlikely hero, but a hero nonetheless. As portrayed by the Emmy winning actor Peter Dinklage, Tyrion is a dwarf whose father hated him because of his misshapen body and the fact that his birth resulted in the death of his mother. Through dent of intellect Tyrion walks tall and proudly among his supporters and enemies alike. Tyrion is so much more than just an amusing soul. He has the heart of a lion and somehow manages to evoke feelings that he is the best of his fair haired family members. He proves again and again that it is not in our appearance that we are ultimately judged but in the way that we approach the challenges of life. We cheer for him because he has learned how to live with the hand that was dealt him and he does so with panache.

When I was a child I had a neighbor who was confined to a wheelchair and spent hours inside an iron lung. I never knew exactly what disease had sidelined her so badly and I visited her because she rarely left home. She was barely able to hold up her head and when she talked she was difficult to understand. When I was with her I sometimes felt ever so slightly uncomfortable much as children sometimes do in such situations. One day I was stunned when she asked if I wanted to hear her play the piano. I nodded my assent but wondered how she would be able to make music given that she was unable to use either her hands or her feet. I watched in amazement as her mother placed a stylus in the girl’s mouth with which she struck the keys so rapidly that they made lovely sounds. I would not have been able to replicate the notes with my ten fingers. I was impressed by her skill and the determination that it must have taken to learn how to play with only a stick and the quick movements of her head. Somehow after her demonstration I saw her in a whole new light. She was not someone to pity. She was a warrior who had soared above a hideous disease. I admired her courage and realized just how strong she was.

Our society still bombards us with images of acceptable beauty. There seems to be little room for someone whose features are imperfect or whose body is too large or too small. The reality is that those considered to be the most gorgeous are often simply blessed by a combination of genes that give them an aura of near perfection. They have generally done nothing to earn the praise that they so often receive. So many people suffer because of defects over which they have no control. We still have cruel people in our midst who ridicule them and purposely inflict pain on them. What those of us who are beyond the superficial understand is that the most exquisite beauty lies inside the soul. Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the loveliest women who ever lived but she was made to feel inferior by members of her own family who worried that she was too unattractive to ever catch and keep a man. They failed to see that she was a stunning soul whose selfless goodness made her more incredible that the most physically attractive movie star.

We try to teach our young to be strong and brave and to follow their own hearts. We tell them that appearances don’t matter. We remind them that they should be in charge of the course of their lives. Sadly there are individuals who will bully and ridicule them if they diverge from what some see as the norm. They have to overcome not just their own shaky confidence but learn how to bear the slings and arrows of a segment of society that may unwilling to accept them just as they are.

Some of the greatest indignities and hurts that I have seen have been inflicted on people based solely on the color of their skin, their religion, their ethnicity or their sexual orientation. It angers and stuns me that we still have such prejudices alive and well in the twentieth century. I cannot imagine the level of self righteousness that it must take to be so judgmental. I have yet to find a perfect person and I suggest that we each be wary of throwing stones.

Fortunately most people are slowly but surely changing and becoming more and more accepting. I’d joyfully celebrate the day when we never again notice the various shades of our skin, the scars on our bodies or the different ways we choose to love. When we strip away all of the superficialities we all breathe the same air and have similar blood running through our veins. We are made of bone and muscle and cells that do little more than house our minds and our hearts and allow us to interact with one another. It’s time for each of us to stay just the way we are and to learn how to love without restrictions. I think we can do it if only we begin to try.