Haven’t most of us spent a great deal of time trying to be socially acceptable? Trying to fit in is a big part of being social creatures. We must “fit in” in order to survive in our culture. If a person has no choice of not fitting in, for almost any reason, she or he becomes an outcast. If someone chooses not to “fit in” she or he has some choice in the matter, separation from society can take other forms.
A few years ago, the gym where I work out hosted a “come as you are” appreciation social hour and buffet. The intent was to express gratitude for members of the gym and the gym’s employees. I did not have a date for the evening, so I asked Landon, one of the gym’s janitors, if he needed a ride to the event because Landon does not own a car.
Landon (not his real name) is a cheerful, happy-go-lucky, hardworking man who was born with Down syndrome. He became attached to a few of us gym members because we enjoyed hearing him talk about his daily work and life routines. He’s a benign character who knows how to put a smile on your face if he senses that you’re not judgmental about him. There are probably half a dozen or so of us with whom he was comfortable.
Anyway, on the evening of the appreciation event, I stopped by Landon’s assisted care apartment. He was eagerly waiting at the front door of the building for my arrival. He wore his best cowboy outfit including brand new cowboy boots and a”Stetson” hat. The new items were birthday gifts he had received from his parents a week prior to the gym event.
After we arrived at the gym, it was clear that Landon had not dressed appropriately for the occasion. The rest of us wore jeans and tee-shirts or some sort of workout clothing. I sensed Landon’s discomfort and he picked up on me noticing it. He quickly mentioned that he’s “used to it”. This is because many people are not comfortable around him due to his disability. I told Landon not to worry, because I’m kind of a misfit and we could be the “outlaws” of the gym that night.
The gym manager, Landon’s boss, told us he was happy that we could make it to the event and that we should relax and enjoy ourselves. Several members also cordially greeted us but seemed cool and stand-offish. We had a hard time of mixing with the group. Landon became visibly unhappy. Awkwardness became the dominant feeling.
Thankfully, we discovered another one of Landon’s gym member friends. The three of us sat together at a table for our meal. The friend and I enjoyed some small-talk and encouraged Landon to talk about himself. Even so, Landon still seemed to be uncomfortable. He wanted to go home early.
I brought him to his apartment. He shook my hand and thanked me for bringing him to the buffet. Then I remained seated behind the wheel to make sure he was inside the building.
During the drive back to my own home, I pondered the concept of acceptability and how it relates to Landon. There seems to be an invisible barrier around Landon that’s maintained by Landon and the people in his life. Most of us keep up some sort of boundary, but in Landon’s case, it appears taller and more formidable. He understands that he will probably never be fully acceptable to society at large, but he is managing to be more acceptable to himself.
I thought about Landon in his cowboy outfit. He was willing to present himself in an authentic manner. He was also courageous enough to show up at the buffet, fully as himself and let the chips fall as they may.
Landon quit his job two years ago, due to health concerns, so we rarely see each other anymore. I ran into him and his social worker at the supermarket last Wednesday. We caught up on some small-talk and shared some friendly laughs. Landon was dressed in western duds and sported a brand new “Resistol” cowboy hat.