07
Aug
11

Should I ask?

Approaching someone who looks different is a quandary for most people, and asking what happened to them shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s difficult to tell if someone like me who has a lot of facial scarring is approachable or not.  Should I look? Should I not look? Do I just ignore them?  What’s the polite thing to do?  There are no hard and fast rules.  In fact, if I were on the other side I’d probably not ask at all.  I’d just try to be kind and treat them like everyone else.  Some people might say, “It’s not polite to ask questions like that,” but neither is staring at someone while wondering what in the world happened to them.  Maybe nothing happened to them.  Maybe they were born that way and have some genetic defect or physical challenge or both. Or maybe they were involved in an accident, like I was. People who looked different always intrigued me when I was a child. But I can’t recall ever being rude or staring in an inappropriate way or making comments that were cruel. Maybe I was already sensitive about such things. I grew up with three developmentally challenged cousins. I saw the way people gawked, laughed and made wisecracks about them. It hurt me even though I wasn’t the focus of it.

I believe there is an acceptable way to look at someone who looks different or even ask what happened to them. First and foremost, remember that I’m no different than anyone else; I just look different than most people.  I want to be treated like anyone else.  One of the reasons for writing this blog and book, Beyond Recognition, and participating in the documentary, Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged, is to educate the general public.  I believe that many people don’t’ know how to respond or react when they see someone who looks like me.  Some people have never seen an actual burn survivor.  Advances in medical technology mean that more burn victims than ever actually live to become survivors, leading to more and more opportunities for interaction.  I hope that by going mainstream with burn survivors, we can overcome the stigma attached to our appearance.

I personally do not mind if people ask me what happened. But first ask yourself a question.  Why do I want to know?  What’s my motivation?  Is it just morbid curiosity of the train wreck variety or something that is heartfelt and sincere?  I really believe this makes a difference, and the person you are asking can tell the difference, believe me!  Here’s what I like: ” Do you mind if I ask what happened to you?”  It’s a direct question, and I’ve been given a choice.  I can either say, “Yes, I do mind,” or, “No, I don’t mind at all.”

Saying, “Do you mind if I ask what happened to you?” is a lot different than asking, “What happened to you?!”  Yes, people have blurted that out to me.  While I didn’t necessarily care for the delivery, I answered the question.  I have to pardon people every day or else I’d be confined to a very small world.  Now my standard reply is, “I was burned in an explosion at an oil refinery.”  The standard reaction is, “Wow, you’re lucky to be alive.”  There was a time when that bothered me a great deal.  I was still very early in the healing process and would think to myself, “Who are you to tell ME I’m lucky to be alive?  How would you know?”  I’ve done a lot of healing since those days and my response usually is, ” Yes, I’m extremely fortunate.”  This too should not be taken lightly.  If you ask somebody what happened and they tell you, you may feel you need to say something back to them. Like, “Wow! You’re lucky to be alive!”  Or, “Oh my God!  You poor thing!”  Here are some alternatives. “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m glad to have met you.”  Or simply, “Thank you for taking the time to share that with me.  I wish you well.”  This is my experience and I certainly do not speak for anyone but me.  Personally, I’d rather someone ask me.  I feel like I’m doing a service for others and myself when I tell someone what happened to me.  I sometimes even share details if people ask or I feel they want to know more.

There is one thing that I believe is totally out of line — questions having to do with money.  Yes, I’ve had people say such things as, “I hope you got paid for that!” Or, “I heard you’re a millionaire,” or, ” So how much money did you get?”  I would consider this area of questioning inappropriate for just about everyone.  The other area that’s out of line is probing for details.  If the person offers details, that’s fine. But don’t ask for more.  It’s usually not hard to tell if someone is comfortable in his own skin.  But at the end of the day, it’s a crapshoot, and there’s no easy answer. In some cases it’s cool to ask, and in others it’s really not.  Discernment and tact mean everything when dealing with people, especially those of us with obvious differences.

There is an appropriate way to look at people. You look right into their eyes. If they can’t meet your eyes, then chances are they aren’t comfortable.  You can never be sure where someone is in the healing process, or whether they are healing inside at all.  And that’s what it’s really about.  Healing on the inside.  Because that’s what all humans have in common.  We all have healing of one kind or another to do.


3 Responses to “Should I ask?”


  1. 1 christine
    February 27, 2012 at 10:41 am

    Dear John,
    A few years ago, a front page story (I think it was front of the “local” section) appeared in the Pocono Record about your experience. I contacted the paper and asked them if they would contact you on my behalf and ask you if you would be at all interested in coming to speak to my Daisy Girl Scout troop, which is comprised of 5 and 6 year old girls. Today, another article in the paper appeared featuring your beautiful woodwork, and this blog address was within it I have read thru much of your blog, and having read this subject on which I am commenting, I would to ask you myself if you would be interested in coming to speak with them about this very subject. I feel that if children learn early about how to handle it when they see someone who outwardly appears different or causes them to question or be confused, it will be very good for them. Please contact me at christine@harvell.com. We meet in Tannersville every Tuesday night.

    Christine

  2. 2 Brenda Resh
    October 4, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    John,
    just wanted share a recent experience with you. One day not too long ago, I was in Walmart shopping. I was busy trying to get the items I needed, not paying much attention to the people around me. Suddenly, I was distracted by a distinct, angelic voice of a man, talking to a child, who was sitting in the front of the cart he was pushing. I tried to ignore the voice but it was so gentle and kind I just had to look up. When I did, I realized he was a burn survivor with considerable scarring on his face, neck and arms. Immediately I remembered this blog and looked directly into his eyes and smiled. I felt such warmth when he looked back into my eyes. John, if it wasn’t for you, I might have quickly turned away or felt guilty for looking. You have taught me something I will forever remember. Thank you for helping me to be a better person.
    Your friend,
    Brenda Tuel Resh

  3. 3 David Allegretto
    August 24, 2011 at 11:02 am

    John, this is a great idea. You are right…people don’t know. Once again you have open my eyes and my heart. Thanks for your freindship. Dave


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Beyond Recognition

An intimate view of a burn survivor's life and recovery

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