REFLECTIONS: Look beyond the labels to see the value of others

photoBy Sara Minkara, MPP’14

Like most, my greatest source of comfort as a child was my mother’s watchful gaze. One look into her brown, loving eyes put all my concerns at ease and allowed me to walk confidently… I felt I was safe as long as I could keep her within my sight.

But, at the age of seven, this comfort was shattered. I was diagnosed with Macular Degeneration; it would be only a matter of time before I lost my vision entirely. As my eyesight started to fade in and out, my greatest fear was not – as you might think – the loss of my vision, but rather, the loss of my mother.

With each episode of vision loss, I would scramble to recollect the last image of my mother’s face. Would I forget her face as I grew older? Was I already forgetting what she looked like? To me, this disease was not only taking my eyesight away; it was also taking away my mother.

How often have we heard, and even used, the phrase “I’ll believe it when I see it”?

This phrase is rooted in our unconscious association of vision to reality, the perception that our eyes – our vision – is proof of existence. Similarly, I wanted proof that my mother would be there for me. If I could look into her eyes and see myself reflected there, then I would know, for certain, that she was there for me. However, the day quickly came when prognosis became reality and I lost my mother’s eyes forever.

But, as I soon learned, I did not lose my mother.

I could feel her gaze linger on me in the darkness. I felt the tenderness when she called my name. I was engulfed in comfort with every hug she gave. I was still cared for. Her presence had not disappeared – and I was safe. Despite our natural tendency to demand proof, to demand a picture, a graph, a promise or a sighting, I learned that the meaning in her gaze and the sentiment of her love could not be erased.

In our society, we tend to use labels to categorize what’s before us and we tend to judge things at face value. We write-off people who don’t look like they have much to offer and we accept people who are similar to us. We completely ignore the fact that what we see is not always what we get… and those of us who cannot see, can tell you that for certain.

I never actually needed my mother’s eyes; I just needed my mother’s comfort. I mistakenly attributed that comfort to a vision that I accepted at face-value. It existed, however, outside of my visual perception, and losing my vision made me realize that the root of my mother’s comfort was deeper.

Similarly, I believe we must all delve deeper into our own experiences and our interactions with other people… deeper than our own judgments and preconceived notions. Labels are simple and comfortable, but being blind to them can sometimes lead you to life’s greatest lessons. My mother’s eyes are not her comfort, my disability does not mean you should be disinterested, and the person sitting beside you is not just their diploma, their skin color, or their concentration. They are much more than that if you just choose to look for it.

But in order to even graze the surface of another’s person’s deeper being, you must first hold yourself to the same standard. We have many labels; I myself have quite a few. I’m blind, I’m disabled, I’m a woman, I am Muslim, and I am Lebanese.

My teen years were a struggle to rid myself of the label “handicapped”. It would have been easy, actually, to accept that I was at a disadvantage and to conform to a handicapped label. But, just as my mother’s comfort exists beyond my vision of her, I decided that my being outlives my eyesight. So I fought against the labels, and here I am before you now – confident and secure that this is who I am, and that who I am has much to offer.

Even though I am standing among you now, and have stood among you these past two years, I have no idea what any of you look like. The faces of my professors, advisors, mentors, friends and classmates are not only a mystery, but, in fact, irrelevant.

I am forced to look beyond what lies at the surface, because that surface is not available to me. I do not need my eyes to see your fears and your doubts, and also your strengths, your intelligence and your resilience. I once thought blindness would be my greatest downfall.

At the age of seven I was terrified of losing my sight, my vision, my mother’s eyes. But although macular degeneration did steal my eyes, it did not steal my vision. I have conception, intuition and perspective. I have been forced to see what people have to offer, regardless of labels, and it has been a gift and a privilege.

Don’t label yourself, and don’t label those around you at face-value. I urge you to seek the unperceived potential in others. In the coming years people will label you “Harvard” and they will think they know what that means. And you know what? It means you’re smart, you studied, and you have a degree and experience. It also means you have spent years in an incredibly diverse and exciting community. You were thrown into an institution of people who look different than you and have different ideas, and you have walked out- stronger than before.

As we leave this place and go into whatever our futures hold, I hope you will continue to look beyond the surface and not see the world’s labels. I believe that sometimes you have to be blind, to gain the greatest insight of all.

Congratulations and Good Luck.

Sara Minkara is a graduating Masters in Public Policy student and a Center for Public Leadership Dubin Fellow, 2012-2014. She is the founder and president of Empowerment Through Integration, a nonprofit organization that focuses on providing the necessary support system for disabled youth so they become authors of their future and changemakers in their society.