I opened a big heavy door last night. Behind the door was a tiny woman in a large wheelchair. I felt instantly that there was no way she could have opened that door on her own – her size alone would have made it difficult. Being in a wheelchair would make it near impossible. She looked like she had been waiting there a long time.

I asked her if I could open the door for her. A simple thing, and compassionate, I thought. I was trying to think of her needs.

She looked down her nose at me and said “I’m not a cripple.”

I was stunned. I felt as if I’d been slapped. Chastised. I hadn’t said or implied anything of the sort. I stammered that I open doors for everyone. I got nothing but a glare from her.

Storming down the hallway towards me was her male companion. He was very large – sci-fi convention large, and similarly hairy. He was rushing towards us, explaining something about how she isn’t a cripple, or doesn’t want help, or something like that. I got the impression that he has to excuse/explain her interactions with well-meaning strangers all the time.

I was speechless. I walked away, away from them, away from their issues, away from their backstory.

I wasn’t feeling very compassionate right then.

My thought when I walked away was a reply to “I’m not a cripple.” was to say, “OK, but you are a bitch.”

Perhaps she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. Perhaps she doesn’t want people to treat her differently. Perhaps she has a lot of baggage to this backstory, more baggage than can be accommodated on the average airplane.

But there has to be some word here. Something I’m missing to help unlock this. I open doors for everyone. For her to assume that I’m being, what? Condescending? Demeaning? Belittling? To her that is rude. It is like reverse racism where someone assumes that I’m going to treat them badly because I’m not the same race as them.

It is like being snapped at by a dog when you offer it food. She isn’t a dog, of course. But her behavior isn’t very human or humane.

I’m missing a word here that would explain this, that would define it. Perhaps a word doesn’t exist. Perhaps if I sketch out the shape around the word, it will fill itself in.

It makes me want to not offer to open doors for anyone, especially someone in a wheelchair. But then they may think that I’m being thoughtless and self centered.

I’m sorry for her, but not for her physical disability but for her emotional one.

And I know that feeling sorry for someone isn’t helpful, or compassionate, or desired. In a way, I wish I’d had more time to get to understand where she is coming from, but I don’t think she is in a place where she is going to share that. And I have to remember not to categorize every other person in a wheelchair the same way – they might not feel the same as she does, and they might appreciate someone being thoughtful.

Or – they might feel the same way. This will have to be played out on a case by case basis. I never want to offend, or to upset. I want to help. If my helping causes harm, I need to stop. More mediation, more prayer, and more writing will help me know more of this. I know that acting from a place of love is always a good start. It is hard to stand in that place when it is attacked. I want to learn from this. But I’m also concerned that this one bad interaction will cause me to stop, cause me to fear, cause me to be afraid that I’m going to get yelled at.

I want to open doors, but not if that steps on toes.