The Heart of the Matter

Transformative experiences sometimes come by the teaspoonful. They are little wee bits of reorientation and redefinition.

This week’s transformative tidbit is this: I don’t need to keep apologizing for something I can’t control and isn’t my fault.

It’s almost a reflex for me to preface every statement or request to someone with the words, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that,” or “I’m sorry, could you say that again?” or “”I’m sorry, I have a hearing disability so….” I’ve apologized to individuals and to rooms full of people.

So last week I was at a retirement party where a deaf colleague sat down at our table with his pen and paper and started a conversation. He wrote. We wrote. He is a mid-career housing advocate, very knowledgeable, involved, very focused, a little intense, an impressive guy when he is using a sign language interpreter and when he’s just geared up with his pen and paper. When we got up to go eat, he took his communication kit to some other folks and continued chatting.

My husband and I talked about it all the way home, about what guts it took to be deaf and walk into a room packed with elected officials and directors of agencies and just talk to whomever using a pen and paper. So impressed was I by this that I wrote my colleague an email the next morning telling him how much I admired his fearlessness. He was gracious but pointed out that it was probably me who had the tougher time since I was still trying to hear people. He could just space out, work on his grocery list, while the mayor was giving a speech rather than strain to understand what he was saying.

Nothing about what my deaf friend said had a whiff of apology about it. Or the self-pity and inadequacy that floats around the apology raft all the time. Why are you apologizing, I asked myself, if you don’t think you’ve got something to apologize for? What is it? You’re not perfect? You’re apologizing for your current imperfection which then presupposes that, at some time in the past, you actually were perfect? Really?

I thought about another colleague, the executive director of a community-based theatre company, who was injured in a terrible car accident many years ago and often uses a wheelchair. Have I ever heard her apologize for using a wheelchair? No, the wheelchair is just there. Like my deaf friend’s pen and paper. These are things that just are. They aren’t choices, preferences, things that my two friends are doing to convenience themselves and inconvenience others. These are the things that are part of their presence in the world and they make no apology. Role models sitting right on a teaspoon waiting for me to partake.

So today I decided to drop all apology from discussion about my hearing disability. My first opportunity came very soon when a potential client emailed to schedule a phone conference. Normally, my replay would begin with the words, “I’m sorry, but…”

Not this time. This time I just dealt with the facts. This is the situation and here’s my strategy. “My hearing disability makes conducting business on the phone impossible; however, here are three alternatives…”

It sounds like a little thing, leaving off that one little phrase, the reflect “I’m sorry,” but it’s not. I’m just done with feeling bad about my situation.

I am a person with a hearing disability. It’s who I am. No apologies.

3 Comments on “The Heart of the Matter

  1. Wow, this is such a brave decision and one I fear I will need to make as well in the coming years. i bookmarked this post and will return to it when I need it.

  2. I’ve always thought that prefacing my similar ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you’ more of a phrase actually meaning ‘Excuse me but…’ When I first read this I thought, okay, I’m going to start saying ‘excuse me’ instead. But as I write this reply I realize that ‘excuse me’ is still apologizing, just using different words to accomplish the same thing. So I think you’re right. No preface, just the facts. Maybe the apology is our generation, raised to always be polite even when it’s not our fault. Good post, and good luck retraining that verbal reflex.

  3. Good for you, Jan. When we finally have coffee together, I will have had lots of practice. I used to discuss lots of “issues” with colleagues during faculty meetings via pen & paper (maybe a continuation of passing notes in grade school). It forces us to cut the crap and get down to what we really want to communicate.

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