Different

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The autumnal equinox came and went last week, but you wouldn’t know it by the weather here: yesterday’s high was 93, and today’s was only marginally less enervating. On the bright side, the little English daisies, which normally bloom in June, have come back for a second, more subdued round of greetings during this extended summer. They were my mother’s favorite—she carried daisies in her bridal bouquet—and when they bloom I always think of her lifelong joy in their sunny little faces.

In a mystery for the ages, one of the daisies blooming right now is unlike all the others. Instead of a golden disk surrounded by an array of white petals that open mostly flat and face upward toward the sun, this flower has a globe-shaped center, and the petals that ring it are perpendicular to the ground. It’s a cultivated plant, not a wildflower, and I don’t know if this particular anomaly is a function of hybridization gone temporarily haywire, or whether it is a normal, if rare, variation that other flowers in the aster family can exhibit. I do know that nature is always making things up on the fly, and anyone who pays attention will soon discover a host of “unnatural” happenings in the natural world.

Nature itself seems to pay no real attention to such differences. The bees, at least, show no preference for the ordinary daisies in my garden, and so I assume this unusual daisy is doing the same job for the world as any other daisy in my pollinator garden. We humans, on the other hand, are acutely attuned to difference and tend to prize any rare variation from the ordinary. We believe a four-leaf clover brings good luck. We go to ridiculous lengths to glimpse a piebald fawn in the nearby woods. A wild crow adopts an abandoned kitten, and the video goes viral. For us, an oddly shaped daisy is a cause for surprise, and then for investigation, and ultimately for delight.

With other human beings, though, we aren’t always so understanding. An airline removes a family from a plane because two of the members have a life-threatening peanut allergy. A professor refuses to make university-mandated accommodations for a student with special needs. Stories of bullying are rampant among the parents of children with any sort of physical or cognitive difference. And right now Senate Republicans are making yet another attempt to take away the health insurance of Americans suffering the most common “difference” of all: illness. According to the party line, this is not a way to punish people for being sick, but that’s exactly what Senate leaders would be doing in opening the door to a lifetime-benefits cap and prohibitively expensive premiums for pre-existing conditions.

It’s tempting to observe at times like this that civilization isn’t as civilized as we like to believe, but I’m not sure an incompletely evolved civilization is really to blame here. The new Senate “health”care bill is wildly unpopular, even among Republicans, and no surprise. Despite our undisputed capacity for brutality, human beings are an empathetic species.

In 2012, the fossil remains of a severely disabled prehistoric man were uncovered in what is now Vietnam. The skeleton revealed the fused vertebrae and weak bones characteristic of a congenital disease called Klippel-Feil syndrome. The man was a quadriplegic, unable to feed himself or keep himself clean, and yet he survived to adulthood—during the Stone Age, mind you—because others in the tribe took care of him. “The provision and receipt of health care may therefore reflect some of the most fundamental aspects of a culture,” according to the two archaeologists who excavated the site where the fossils were recovered.

In 1988, during one stop on our 9,000-mile camping honeymoon, my husband and I visited the San Diego Museum of Man. On display at the time was an exhibit of ancient clay figures created by members of an indigenous tribe in what is now the American Southwest. The art was primitive, but the tiny human figures were all visibly different in some way: people with dwarfism, people missing a limb, people with severely curved spines or extra fingers. An informational placard explained that these figures had been fashioned by members of a tribe who revered physical difference. What we call a disability they considered a blessing: God had entrusted to the care of their community a rare treasure, and even in their art they strove to be worthy of that trust.

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