The blind side

Sometimes medical students come to my clinic and spend a couple of months following me around and learning about family medicine. My most recent student was an impressive young woman named “Jahp” (short for a tongue-twisting Hindi name she wouldn’t let me try to pronounce).

She had chosen our clinic because of the diversity of our Rainier Beach neighborhood. She loved the idea of working with all kinds of people, and her own dark skin and her parents’ experience as immigrants gave her both compassion and insight into the lives of patients like ours. 

She was bright, confident and ambitious, but also respectful and polite. Her success as a physician seemed all but assured. In short, she was every parent’s dream come true.

“Your folks must be really proud of you,” I said. To my surprise, there was an awkward pause.

“Actually,” she said, “they’ve kind of disowned me.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because my boyfriend’s black.”

The thing about bias and ignorance is that people never see it in themselves. We’re blind to it. We think we’re seeing clearly, but we don’t know what we don’t know. And though it’s easy to judge Jahp’s parents harshly (and I confess that I do), each of us has visual defects of our own. We drive down the highway of life with complete confidence, never suspecting that our blind spot is big enough to fit a swerving 18-wheeler with a sleepy driver at the wheel.

Most of the time, we humans are all too skilled at seeing the world only as we want to see it. When someone behaves differently than we do, or believes in something we don’t, we tend to dismiss or ignore them. It’s a convenient little arrangement, and we’re more than happy to stay lost in the blissful ignorance it provides. But then some of us go and mess up everything — we have kids.

When they’re little, it isn’t a problem yet. They look up to us. They want to be like us. They believe everything we tell them, and they do almost everything we say. But no matter how carefully we try to mold them in our own image, there’s one fundamental truth that we can never overcome.

They aren’t us. They’re themselves.

This is parenthood’s age-old dilemma. It crosses all cultural lines, and generates sleepless nights all over the globe. Our job is to share our wisdom and teach our children how to live their lives. Their job is to find their own wisdom, and carve out lives of their own. It’s an explosive arrangement, set to go off some time in adolescence, and there’s not a bomb squad in the world that can stop that clock from ticking.

Not long ago, some dear friends of ours had one of those bombs go off in their lives, shortly after they sent their daughter to college. A few weeks into her first semester, just when they were patting themselves on the back for getting her out of the nest and flying on her own, she called home saying she was about to crash and burn.

Our friends sprang into action. They flew out to assess the situation, and quickly realized that there was no way to turn it around without pulling her out of school. They managed to erase her academic false start, and arranged for her to re-enroll as a freshman the following year. Then they took her home to try and piece together what had gone wrong.

It turns out this was not the usual homesick-freshman freak-out. Their daughter told them something she had known for a long time, but that they had never suspected. She wasn’t really their daughter at all. She was their son. She was transgender.

I didn’t learn all this until several months later, after their whole family had launched themselves into the process of transition. Everything in their lives was in flux: a new name, new clothes, new pronouns and new medications. And as I heard the whole incredible story, I was deeply moved by the way our friends were embracing their child’s drastic departure from the person they thought they had raised.

“But the truth is,” his mother told me, “he hasn’t changed that much. Deep down, he’s still the same person he always was. Really, we’re the ones who have to change. And we will.”

In the beginning, we think we’re the CEOs of our children’s lives. But then we figure out that we just run the management training program. Ultimately, we won’t be making the big decisions — they will. And if we do our jobs well, those decisions won’t be the ones we expected, or the ones that we ourselves would have made.

They’ll be better.

Jeff Lee stays in his lane, and checks his mirrors, in Seattle, Washington.