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On love, prejudice and difference

On Friday, I joined many New Zealanders to listen to Imam Gamal Fouda’s speech in Christchurch. Like many I was taken by the messages of unity and love. He mentioned love, or a variation of it, 10 times.

‘Love will redeem us’ he said.

Words for the ages. Words to remember. Better words than I can write about what has happened in the last 10 days in this country. I struggled to string anything together this week that wasn’t a jumble of half formed ideas and I have hated it.

If I am honest, I have struggled with the disorder, the chaos, the outpouring of emotion and the awkward, fumbling attempts by so many people to show they care. There is a part of me that really likes things to be tidy and smooth. I feel anxious when I cannot logically and analytically come to a neat conclusion. I do not like uncomfortable situations or silences. I want the earth to open up and swallow me, not when I do something ‘wrong’ but when someone else does. My personal nightmare is someone getting up and doing an unplanned eulogy at my funeral. I like my emotional outpourings, personal and national, to be measured. I do not enjoy tension. I do not like awkward. I also know this is 100 percent about my own shit and no one else’s, and that is why I dislike it so much.

They say ‘write what you know’ and because I don’t know what to say and nor do I think my words will add anything to the national conversation, I am left having to do exactly that. I am left to write about my own redemption through love, and my own revelations about prejudice and difference.

‘Are you Schumering me?’ my husband says as I tell him what I have finally decided to write about, referring to Amy Schumer’s bit about her husband in her latest stand-up comedy special on Netflix.

You see, my husband is a bit different. He, like Schumer’s husband, is on the spectrum. Diagnosed with what used to be called Asperger’s, he is mildly autistic and he’s a bit awkward, especially in social situations. He can be wildly enthusiastic in conversation in a way that involves his whole body, sometimes knocking drinks off tables with his excited arms. He’ll often stand, one knee crooked, up on the ball of one of his feet. He holds his mouth a certain way when he’s thinking. He can be quiet and out of sync with the natural flow of conversation sometimes, and he cannot lie very well.

For a long time he would have been my idea of a nightmare partner. I am pretty socially adept. I read rooms quickly. During Dad’s speech at our recent wedding, he said ‘I have often been frightened by the speed at which my daughter can process information’. It makes me sound a bit like a super computer, but I comprehend things quickly and my mouth generally moves at the same rate as my head. I ask questions, I listen, and my brain retrieves the right thing to say pretty quickly. In social situations, my husband’s brain usually does not. He has often described it as like having to find the right filing cabinet and then the right file and by the time he’s done that, the conversation has moved on. It makes arguments in our house almost impossible – it’s just me saying things and waiting for ages while he finds the right words.

I thought I would marry someone like me. Highly verbal, socially easy, and (I know I sound like Henry Higgins here) versed in the ways of the forks at dinner. I sought out similarity, rejecting difference in my relationships by trying to change people and writing people off pretty quickly on the dating scene. I’d immediately start thinking about what other people would think about that person and how they’d perform in social situations with my friends. I was single for a long time.

I don’t know when I realised that looking to be with someone just like me was a terrible idea. Maybe it was after spending so much time with myself. I know it had something to do with working in a large place like a bank where you naturally encounter a highly diverse group of people. The more difference you encounter, the more important it becomes in your life as you realise it’s key to understanding others and yourself better. Your comfort zone becomes a place that’s safe but stagnant. You begin to understand that your sense of feeling awkward or uncomfortable in different situations is not about the situation but about you.

So, when my husband-to-be and I matched on Tinder three years ago yesterday (I’d known him for a few years), I thought ‘why not?’. I’d been trying the same thing for so long with no real difference in outcome and, as they say, that is the definition of stupidity. He persisted through a few of my attempts to retreat back into a safe comfortable place and we married in November. His difference is the best of him and it brings out the best in me. Where once I thought I’d love a man just like me, I love a man who is so different and it has forced me to look at my own behaviour, prejudice, and bias. It has forced me to look at why I feel awkward on other people’s behalf. It has allowed me to see that homogeneity breeds inertia and people’s strengths present in ways that might not be apparent at first glance. Ultimately he is a kinder person than I am, and I have become kinder through being with him.

We seek out sameness because difference pushes us outside our comfort zone and forces us to confront things about ourselves. We walk around with preconceived notions about people and hold onto them because examining them would mean examining ourselves. We make judgments based on a range of socially conditioned criteria. We rule people out, we don’t hire them, we don’t befriend them, we don’t give them a chance because in doing so we might find ourselves feeling a bit uncomfortable. We struggle with difference and yet difference is where we get to encounter the fullness and richness of life. Experiencing and embracing difference is a propulsive force. It expands your world and creates room for more. More life, more prosperity, more peace and, ultimately, more love.

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