Pete Michaud: Is Your Face Real?
My eye patch is a conversation piece. Many people ask about it, a lot assume it’s either fake or temporary (it’s neither). “Do I need it?” some ask.
Some people reflexively yell “Yarrr!!” at the sight of me, like their ancestors evolved some pirate instinct that preserved their genes from pillaging while other, less impulsive genotypes fell by the cutlass.
The patch is complicated. I didn’t start wearing it until I was 16, about 10 years after the car accident that gave me my scars.
I’ll talk about the accident later. For now, a little before and after:
People tell themselves they don’t judge based on appearance, but they are wrong.
Before the patch, I was the guy in the grocery store you stole glances at because his face was burned. I was the women with a crooked spine and bent limbs, making her way through the store on one of those motorized carts.
Those people, bless their hearts, are “victims.” The first thing you see is the scars. You might feel real empathy for them afterward and wonder how their life is, or whatever, but the very first thing that flies through your brain is “Whoa, what the hell?”
That was me.
I put on the patch after a surgery when I was 16. I was a senior in high school and I had the surgery done during spring break, so I didn’t have time to heal before going back to school. The patch protected my face during the couple of months it was healing. At the end of the couple months, I was attached to it, so I just kept it.
At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on what had changed because it wasn’t an analytical decision. Even though I had never worn a patch before, and even though it was no longer medically necessary in the strict sense, I felt naked without it. I realized eventually that, as I said, the patch is complicated. That it was part psychology, part branding. Part for my benefit, and part for everyone elses’.
I am stuck with the scars, but the patch is my choice. The impression people form about me is more accurate when I wear the patch than when I don’t.
In putting the patch on, I went from “Whoa, what the hell?” to “Why is that guy wearing an eye patch?”
Instead of “What’s wrong with his face?” it became “Is that patch for real?”
That time was really transformative for me. It was the first time I started getting serious attention from girls, the first time I became really “popular.” The patch is distinctive, memorable, some people think it’s sexy. Most of all the patch replaces that instinctual first impression of “victim” with just “interesting.”
Darn those superficial people!
I’ve told people this story before and without fail, every single one swears up and down that they are different. That they wouldn’t judge me that way. They are wrong.
It’s precognitive. It happens in that primal moment when you feel something, before your front brain reflects on your feelings, before it filters the perception through your “I am a moral person” and “I am not prejudiced by appearances” filters.
I know that happens to you because it happens to me too. I know because the way people treated me before and after was like night and day. Teachers, peers, and total strangers, without exception.
It’s alright though, it’s not our fault. Of course it’s superficial, and of course it’s not ideal, but it’s what we have to work with. We can’t (yet) rewire our brains to correct bugs. The most we can do is own the bugs and compensate.
So the first step is really getting comfortable with the idea that you—yourself, not some hypothetical reader who isn’t you—make snap judgments. It’s okay, we all do it, even the burn victim at the grocery store. We feel bad about it. It violates our self-image as rational, autonomous people to admit it, but the first step to solving a problem is to admit we have one.
My name is Pete, and I make snap judgments.
Good. Now that that’s over, let’s learn what we can from the insight.
Insight One: In an ocean of sameness, difference will shine.
The common factor between me, face burn guy, spina bifida woman, and a guy with a gaudy handlebar mustache is that we’re all weird. You’ve never seen someone quite like us before. In the ocean of bland faces you see daily, we stick out like a neon orange buoy.
Just like you probably take a second look at unusually attractive or unusually ugly people, you also can’t help but steal a glance at the guy with the funny facial hair.
Insight Two: All differences are not created equal.
There is a categorical difference between spina bifida and a handlebar mustache. Between distorted facial features and an eye patch.
One is a burden, the other is a choice. One reflects a victim while the other reflects panache.
Some differences are precategorized in our brains as bad. Bad: not having a face. Good: being a black man with light blue eyes.
No matter what you look like, it’s a mask for whatever is going on inside of you. Whether you choose a mohawk or a bob, jeans or spandex, makeup or au naturale. I do not physically have the choice to fade into the ocean of sameness. What I can choose is the way I stand out. It’s all superficial; it’s all masks.
But now that we know we’re stuck with them, what do we choose to do about it?
I make the choice every day to eschew my victim mask, because I am not a victim on the inside, so I don’t want to evoke victimhood on the outside. Instead I make the choice to put on the unusual mask, my patch.
What choices to do you make about appearances? Do they reflect your inner reality?
RELATED: Read Pete's first piece for the Observer, on Fear and Freedom.
Pete Michaud is an author and entrepreneur living in Jacksonville, FL. His mission is to inspire people to think clearly, to live deliberately, to conquer fear and embrace possibility, to express beauty, and to love completely. Find out more at his website: PeterMichaud.com
This article was first published in the January print edition of the Jacksonville Observer.