Once upon a time, two teenage lovers shared a famous conversation over a balcony rail. It was a dark Verona night, and their passions were fired by a chance encounter at a happening house party. We know these two as Juliet and Romeo.
The house party was at Juliet’s place, and the meeting was unexpected because Romeo wasn’t on the guest list. In fact, if you’ve read or seen any adaptation of this story, you know that these two kids were straddling a serious family feud. The Montagues (Romeo’s folks) and the Capulets (Juliet’s fam) did not like each other.
So when Juliet croons over the veranda rail, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” she is not, as many first-time Shakespeare explorers think, asking where Romeo is. She’s using that fancy Elizabethan word wherefore, meaning why? or how come? She’s saying, “Why does he have to be a Montague?” or “It would be much easier if he was from a different family!” As Juliet moves through her reasonable complaints, she arrives at this resolution about names:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
Juliet says the name doesn’t matter. Call him what you want, Romeo’s still a dreamboat. And she’s remarkably egalitarian: she offers to give up her name as well. Either way, the names aren’t going to keep them apart.
Though the story is a few centuries old, it still commands us to honesty. It reminds us that language must bear up the testimonies of our senses.
Today, our feelings often go “by another name”: we don’t want to admit what we’re feeling, so we call it something else. And this renaming drives up emotional costs. Let’s look at the emotion that gets the most makeovers: Fear.
Fear regularly dresses up as concern and pity, because concern and pity offer us distance and power. In her article “Why Your Fat Friend Doesn’t Need Your Health Concern – And What to Do Instead,” author @yrfatfriend describes the kinds of “concern” she has faced from friends, teachers, and strangers. Based on their initial perceptions of her health—ah, let me rephrase, based on their visual judgments of her body—people offer unsolicited medical advice, diet advice, and comments on her personal history. One stranger even says that her weight gain must have resulted from her daddy issues; presumably her father abandoned her and she has been eating to fill the void.
It does not matter whether the givers of advice believe they are correct. It matters that their advice is patronizing, intrusive, and presumptuous. But because @yrfatfriend is fat, people assume that she requires their ministry, that she is dying for a different body.
Such “concern” fails to consider the human in the problematic body. The “concern” is the privilege of the beholder: the one who can assess the body at a glance and rewrite its story.
@yrfatfriend’s story resonated with me because I have often had my own story rewritten in just this way. Nondisabled strangers approach me to ask if they can pray for a cure: they don’t need to ask if I want to be cured. In their story, I am hopelessly bereft and longing to be fixed. That is why my sense of humor and ready smile are so remarkable. Disability is such an inevitable tragedy that I must possess special fortitude in order to consider myself whole and unmarred.
When I walk into a room, when I order coffee, when I purchase a pair of earrings, I am working in the shadow of powerful narratives history has built against me. Disabled bodies have already been written as defective and unworthy of love (hence the recent popularity of Me Before You, in which a disabled man chooses the “understandable” option of suicide). I, and my disabled colleagues, expend enormous amounts of energy taking back our bodies and our stories, rewriting ourselves on our own terms.
There is no body so “deformed,” “disabled,” or “undesirable” that it deserves the unsought judgements of others. What we think of as “concern” and “pity” are really high-fashion fears, designed to give us distance. The non-fat fear becoming fat, the nondisabled fear becoming disabled. So they hide their fear in “concern”—and from this platform, they can offer advice, prayers, help. These offerings reinforce their status as benefactors, the “more fortunate” in their cold equation of personal worth.
These benefactors are often shocked when we don’t want their concern. We don’t want it because we recognize that feeling as a one-way street: from their fear to our bodies. Such concern doesn’t let us offer anything of value in return. That’s when I call on Juliet: “Wherefore art thou concern’d?”
I can count on Juliet to ask the tough questions.
Why am I afraid? Why do I see that person’s life as tragic? Why do I feel they have nothing to teach me?
Fear destroys empathy. Make it answer for all this maneuvering.