Yesterday I watched a short clip of Dustin Hoffman speaking at AFI about the making of Tootsie. He told the story of asking the movie studio to do makeup tests before they got into production, he said that if he couldn’t look acceptably like a woman, there was no point in making the movie. So they did, and he saw the result, and it was acceptable. Then he went back and said, “Okay, now make me a beautiful woman,” because he thought that was important. If he was going to be a woman, he needed to be physically attractive, right? The answer was, “That’s as beautiful as you get.”
And he began to cry, because, as he explained, he realized that he had discounted unattractive women for years, because of some social stereotype that being good-looking makes women valuable, and he knew that he had missed out on a huge portion of love, knowledge, and human connection.
While this is a wonderful story—and yet another crystal clear example of how we should always put ourselves in another’s shoes before we judge them—it doesn’t just apply to women.
It applies to anyone that you discount for physical, racial, or sociological reasons. They are not the ones who are lacking.
Here’s something I learned long ago. Everyone knows something you don’t know. If you will only get past your pre-concieved idea of someone, you will find out that there is more to them than you expected.
When I was a teenager, one of my best friends had a father who had gone down in a fighter plane in WW2, he was so badly burned that his comrades left him for dead and he laid there for 3 days before a rescue team got to him. The result was that when I knew him, many years later, he had no face. Or rather, his face was scar tissue, with slits for nostrils and the rutted, pore-less skin of a reptile.
And he was one of the most wonderful people I ever met. Larry Clayton. He was gentle, smart, funny and entertaining. He had lived through so much, given his very identity to defend not only his country, but people who were suffering that he would never meet. He would do anything to help someone out. I’m glad and proud that I knew him and called him a friend.
How could anyone judge him badly? Yet in our youth and beauty society, it was only his remarkable spirit that kept him from being shunned and ignored. Would you stop to have a conversation with someone who was initially hard to look at? Would you fear your own reaction?
There are so many children I’ve met through the work with my charity, The Desi Geestman Foundation, who go through terrible physical trials, not the least of which is often the loss of their ‘cuteness’ or attractiveness. This is hardest on the teens, of course. I’ve met charming kids with bald heads riddled with tumors, three year olds whose faces are swollen and covered with fine black hair from the steroids, and quite a few who have lost limbs or even facial features. And I have seen the amazing beauty in them all and been blessed to know every one of them.
I talk a lot about perspective, because I think it colors and changes everything. My friend Paul, who I knew from age 9, when he was diagnosed with bone cancer and lost his left arm, until he died just after his 18th birthday, was the best hugger I ever knew. The last thing the charity did for Paul was to send him with some friends up to Big Bear, because he had never seen the snow, and we knew he didn’t have much longer on this earth. That was our final gift to him and his family.
Paul had the voice of an angel and we were honored to have him sing at a few of our black tie fundraiser events. To see this cancer- plagued, bald 12 year old with one arm belting out “You are the wind beneath my wings” is a treasured memory that leaves me in tears even as I write this. I will never forget him, or the faces of his pallbearers, all of them were 18 or younger. I know that the lives of his friends who knew and loved Paul through it all are forever changed, they will never be young men and women who judge others by their physical appearance the way most teenagers would.
That was Paul’s final gift to them.
It’s a horrible way to learn a crucial lesson, and some small part of me believes that those kids came into our lives to show us what is important. That we don’t control everything, that life and death are neither to be feared.
It’s those special and courageous people who inspired me to write “Invisible Ellen.” That’s why I think the story of a lost human, ignored and unobserved by society, is important. More than important. Their eviction from society is a loss of spirit and life, of talent and goodness, of potential for friendship, learning and connection that is wasted, not by those who are classified as “different’ or ‘unattractive’ but by those of us who limit our relationships to what is comfortable. We learn so little by embracing only what we know.
I’ve had quite a few difficult life lessons, and I’m grateful for them all. Of course, I would much rather that Larry hadn’t been so horribly disfigured, or that Paul and the other children never had cancer, but they did, and they do, and I shall not judge the outward effects of their fates, I choose to see the spirit within.
So, I know this isn’t the happiest blog, but I guess what I’m saying is this—the next time you see someone who is not a person you would go camping with, let’s say, challenge yourself to look them in the eye, to see the person beneath who is just surviving and living like the rest of us, and smile and say hello. Maybe ask how their day is going. And I promise you this. Soon, you will not have to challenge yourself anymore, you will realize that we are all different, we all have struggles, pain and faults, we all have so much to give, we just come in different forms.
You might learn something you didn’t know, you might even let go of some irrational fear. Freedom is wonderful thing.
You might even make a friend.
With love and respect,
Shari, July 10th, 2013