Recently I was at a Special Olympics basketball tournament because my son Nat’s team was competing. I was chatting with one of his teammates, a woman in her late thirties, whom I’ll call Carol. Carol was telling me about her disability and about stuff she’d gone through. I was looking at her with sympathy and sadness. Despite being a supposedly greatly enlightened person, all I felt was overwhelmingly sorry for her. What kind of life did she have? Why do some people get so much and others so little? These questions were swirling around my head as I –God forgive me — cast about for an excuse to move away from her and my great discomfort.
Suddenly a guy, a twenty-something from a different team came bounding over. I had noticed him before; he didn’t look like many of the others on his team. Because of his muscular shoulders and sassy attitude, I hadn’t been sure if he was a Special Olympics player or maybe a coach. Once he started talking, however, I knew he was developmentally delayed. Still, I admit I enjoyed watching him – I’m happily married but not dead, as they say. But then he put his arm around Carol, laughing with a wide gorgeous smile. I felt intrigued, and something else that I couldn’t identify right away. So after he left I asked her who was this guy. “Oh, he’s my boyfriend,” she said. “But I actually don’t think so anymore because he calls me too much. He called me eight times the other day!”
Her boyfriend. But no longer her boyfriend because she felt like he called too much. Eight times! Well, I guess she was just not that into him.
And how many times had that happened to me? Well, it was so long ago that I can’t even remember. So here I was, moments before, half-listening to this Poor Thing, feeling relieved to be me and trying to find compassion for her. But not only was she not at all a thing to be pitied; I realized that she was also someone to envy. Not just for her hot boyfriend; but also for her equanimity about the whole thing. I know that in my dating days I’d never gotten to a point of such maturity where I could decide so firmly that a guy was not worthy. Carol made it look easy.
So now I’m thinking about all the reasons people give not to label people, and especially not to use the word “retarded,” because of how hurtful it can be, how dehumanizing. But the one thing you never hear about is how inaccurate it is, also. Implicit in the r-word slur is an assumption of inferiority. And often, too, even in the most well-meaning of us, there is this air of condescension that is utterly misplaced. Because standing there in that gym – self-asssured, well-heeled, middle age mom – though I may have looked like the one who had it all, Carol sure had something that I’d never had as a single woman: self-confidence and the admiration of a younger man.