Hats off?

The other day, I was perusing an online pediatric OT board where folks come to share stories and request help with client care situations. It’s the place to go if you’ve tried everything you know to help your little charge, but nothing’s working. Or to ask for course recommendations, or billing questions — you get the idea. Many great minds working together.

I was scanning through a post or two, when I noticed a thread that hit me hard. There was nothing remarkable about it, really. An OT was requesting help with a client, not named (this site protects private information fiercely), who has Down syndrome. The treating therapist had tried a variety of things to help with a very specific small motor challenge that was stumping this client and causing her frustration and embarrassment, but nothing was working.

The capable, experienced therapists who responded to her query for ideas had useful suggestions. Some were innovative and so very clever – OTs have a knack for finding a way over, under, or through a challenge.

What stopped me and caused my heart to ache was not the intent (so clearly to help), but the choice of words. The tone. The “shop talk” that leaves humanity at the door in favor of the more easily-digested category or label. I’ve been guilty of this, I have no doubt, despite my best efforts to avoid it. It’s easy, when you work with folks who are variably-able (or, let’s be real, if you ever interact with people who aren’t exactly the same as you), to start categorizing and labeling. Our giant and complex brains looooove a good category. Some nice black-and-white to keep things organized in our mental file cabinets.

As I scanned more posts, I saw a trend. In many cases, OTs write in generalities. They’re being pragmatic, efficient, and sharing what they’ve noticed in their years of work as a trend in a specific subgroup. It’s no different from an ESL teacher making notes of cultural and language differences among his students. Or an off-hand observation about “people with money.” And it makes me want to drop my head into my hands and say a prayer for us all.

Words matter. Immensely. Hugely. Completely.

“You make me happy” vs. “I feel happy when I’m with you.”

“Those people don’t vaccinate their children.” vs. “Some people in that community choose not to vaccinate.”

Down syndrome people are all so happy” vs. “Many people with Down syndrome have positive outlooks.”

“Downs kids are low tone” vs. “Many kids with Down syndrome live with low muscle tone.”

Often, the more thoughtful version, the one that respects each person’s humanity and leaves room for variability, is also a little longer. So, so worth it. Because subtle matters.

My husband and I talk often about the hats we wear. For example: I have my yoga teacher hat. My OT hat. My mom hat. My wife hat. My Minnesotan hat. You get the idea – they’re the labels we give ourselves. The concepts we use to define ourselves in the world and in our own heads. I am never so frustrated with him or with myself as when one of us hides under a hat instead of being vulnerable and real. Our world encourages hat identification, ranking by hat size/shape, and belief in finding more and better hats to save us from suffering.

Our generalizations about subgroups of people, and our individual assortment of hats, are essential to getting anything done. They can be meaningful and useful. Research happens and reduces suffering because we single out specific groups for observation. My OT and yoga teacher hats make me identifiable as a helpful person for many. We can’t throw the hats away, and we can’t avoid all generalizations – that would be complete chaos.

That said, we’ve all met the people who come into relationship hat-off and heart-first. They acknowledge the hats they wear, pick them up and put them down freely and as-needed, and at the end of the day don’t give them much weight. What ultimately matters is the connection between two living beings, soul to soul – not who’s wearing the “expert” hat or who has the “good person” or “disabled person” hat on.

Nearly every spiritual tradition touches on the importance of shoving all the hats in the closet sometimes, and trusting that the undefinable parts of us are strong, resilient, and very deserving of regular time and attention. Meditation. Prayer. Mindful movement. Time in nature. All things that can be engaged in without any of our hats on. Sometimes we need these things to help us take off the hats. Because it’s scary. It’s hard. The world feels a lot more gray when there’s less obvious boundary, and we aren’t always rewarded for our courage by society (but we are absolutely rewarded in our relationships).

What if in life, work, and play we seek to be ever-aware of our reliance on those hats, those generalizations? What if we separate them from our sense of self, even just a smidge, to be aware when we’re using them? They become a tool for good. They cease to cause division, to make everything an issue of us/them. We never miss the remarkable individuality of the human(s) before us.

I love the OTs who responded to their peer’s query for their eagerness, their creativity, their instantaneous willingness to help. I hope that I can be a champion among them for the subtle, the importance of word choice, and the courage to assume nothing when we meet another soul.

Thanks for sticking with this rambler and my tendency toward (admittedly sometimes convoluted) metaphor! I’m off to warm up another cup of tea on this chilly Spring day, visit with my seedlings for a moment, and scoop up a wiggly baby post-nap. 

[Note: Some exciting evolution is taking place here at Gray Bird. Stay tuned forupdates in the coming weeks]