No fuel for the fire of hatred

July 1, 2019 - 12:00am -- Living City

No fuel for the fire of hatred
Reacting with kindness and opening a dialogue after hurtful comments on Twitter

By Rachel Zelenak

I remember being 10 years old when I first realized I looked different than others. I walked out of one of the bathroom stalls at school. Another girl around the same age walked in, and upon seeing my face, pointed, screamed and ran out of the bathroom. I stood there, crying and wondering how it could be that my face was so “ugly” that people were afraid of me.

I’m now 22 years old; I live in Detroit, Michigan, studying health psychology at Wayne State University. I was born with an incurable disease called arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in my face, which causes me to have life-threatening bleeds from my gums. I was diagnosed when I was nine years old, and since then I’ve had almost 20 operations to help maintain or shrink the growth of my malformation.

When I was nine, I had an operation that attempted to remove the AVM, and although it didn’t work, it left me with a long scar that ranges from the top of my left ear to the bottom of my neck.

In a society that lays an incredible emphasis on the way our bodies look, I’ve had to learn a lot about where my worth truly comes from.

Experiences like I first mentioned are common and happen more often than one would think. However, it’s given me the wonderful and quiet opportunity to take the initiative in loving, when people have hurtful reactions to my face.

An added challenge

“The voice of suffering out of love — which is perhaps unheard by and unknown to others — is the loudest cry that can penetrate heaven,” said Chiara Lubich.

While there are many stories I could share, one that comes to mind in this time of polarization in the media and the news is an experience I had this past February. Recently, complications with my AVM have taken me to New York City to pursue further treatment and chemotherapy. I was staying at the Ronald McDonald House, a place where patients can stay for as long as they need while they are undergoing treatment in New York City. The house is a non-profit that provides community and activities for the patients and their families, as this is a time when many families can feel alone and are in need of support.

The day before my operation, the house had a guest named Chris Pratt, who came to visit and have fun with the patients. Chris is an actor who appeared in movies like Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers and Jurassic Park. I had to leave for an appointment with my doctor, so the house set aside a little time for me to meet Chris in the beginning.

I was truly touched by his genuine heart and charismatic personality. We talked about the things I’ve been through with my AVM, and he told me he would pray for me and reassured me of God’s love. We laughed, too, and recorded a little video with a plush mascot that a volunteer group I’m in at Wayne State sent me on my trip.

I sent the video to my volunteer friends in a group chat and was surprised to find it a few hours later on Twitter through one of the Wayne State accounts. Quickly the video went viral. I was glad that a moment of joy I shared with Chris was also bringing others joy.

However, that same night I went on Twitter and read a few of the comments under the video. There was a man who made a negative comment about my face that was getting a lot of attention. I have a lopsided smile due to nerve damage from the surgeries, and his comment pointed it out in a genuinely hurtful way.

I have to be honest; when I first saw it I cried. I couldn’t understand why my face would bring out these types of reactions in others. That night I found myself thinking, “Am I truly this ugly? Does my smile really look like that?”

Though comments like his aren’t foreign to me and something I deal with almost daily, it’s not really something you ever get used to. But how to deal with it is something you have to choose. I’ve learned that it’s not the cards you get in life that matter — but how you use them.

No fuel for the fire

Soon after, that man was getting a handful of rude comments back to him from other Twitter users. Even though I was hurting, my heart broke for him, because I knew what that felt like.

I also know that to make a comment like he did, he must have been lacking love in his life. Even though I don’t know his story or his life experiences, I wanted to share love with him in any small way that I could.

In this time of polarization and hatred within the media, it’s easy to see opposing sides argue out of anger and hate. It’s not common to see dialogue. I prayed and thought it would be a good moment to open a dialogue with this man on Twitter. Why fuel a fire when you can open the floodgates of love?

I responded to his comment, affirming that I love my lopsided smile, and I shared with him the reason I was in New York. He replied a couple of days later, and to my surprise he even apologized. I told him I forgave him wholeheartedly but asked him to remember this moment, because those with facial deformities receive remarks like these all the time. But love — love is everything. He responded again, and we continued a little dialogue.  I really think that it was all possible through the simple beauty and power of gentle love.

This interaction on Twitter also sparked the attention of Wayne State and other local news in Michigan, like the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ News. The day after my surgery, a journalist from the Free Press called me for an interview. She noticed the comments on Twitter about my smile and was surprised by my response to it.

When I returned to school, my professors and advisors also brought it up to me. They were touched and wished there could be more dialogue like this in social media. It dawned upon me that when we decide for love (or anger, or any other emotion) it has a butterfly effect, and the choices we make have lasting effects that go beyond yourself and the person next to you.

There’s a quote by Therese of Lisieux that I try to keep in mind in moments like these: “Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

While there are times that I truly struggle with my AVM and the way I look because of it, I’m thankful that it gives me the opportunity to share love with others in moments where they may not have experienced love otherwise.

It’s simple, but Chiara Lubich’s words on being the first to love is something that we can emulate even while suffering silently. And I think that sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world. Even if that world starts with just one person.


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