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Zucker ’24: We Are All Born Lacking

We are all born lacking. It might sound like an insult. But to me, that phrase not only provides me perspective, it’s a beacon of optimism. “We Are All Born Lacking” is the name of a poem written by author Elizabeth Shapiro for my mother on the day of her birth in the middle of a blizzard in rural Illinois. She was born with ectrodactyly, a genetic condition leaving her with only one finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one toe on each foot — a condition that she passed onto my brother Charlie and me. Throughout our lives, strangers have literally jumped back, stunned at the sight of us. They assume we must be greatly limited, incapable of living a life equally as fulfilling as theirs. But that assumption is far from the truth. Instead of feeling less than, I’ve come to believe that having ectrodactyly is my greatest gift. Why? Well, for one, only the most wonderful people want to know me, spend time with me and have unconditionally accepted me. And this is despite my life being perceived as “abnormal.”

Back in 2020, I was a mildly neurotic 18-year-old waiting to enter Brown University. In the summer, I got an email, like everyone else, informing me that our first year of college was delayed until January because of COVID-19. I had started to make friends at Brown through Zoom game nights, which today feel like a fever dream. I remember many of my peers were understandably frustrated that we weren’t going to get a “normal college experience,” and that we were denied a normal orientation, in-person classes and unlimited social contact. Maybe I was just in denial, but I shrugged it off. I then realized that I think a little differently than many of my peers. 

Because of my personal journey, I had long ago let go of fixating on what my life “should be.” I came to accept that not only is life not always fair, but, as it turns out, it is okay too. So with my expectations in check, why should I panic about a messed-up first year of college? It had been drilled into my head that we are all born lacking. Maybe if we were the Class of 2015 instead of the Class of 2024 we would’ve had four “normal” years of college. But because our experience was so drastically different, it allowed us to gain valuable understanding and perspective. Instead of arriving for our first semester fixated on minor details, we started reshuffling our priorities with a new understanding of what was truly important. We refused to take even the littlest things for granted. We cherished the opportunity to just be on campus. What was extraordinary about our class in that first semester was that we felt like we had so much taken away, but then we were catapulted into a new dimension of unconditional acceptance and gratitude for what we were finally being given.

My mom also raised me to embrace the proverb “Let go and let live.” It reminds me how our summer semester in many ways was a wonderful time — we were vaccinated, the world was opening up, friend groups were falling apart and, for most people, that was great! The only thing we lacked was air conditioning. In early July, in the middle of the night, I called my mom in a state of overheated panic. She calmed me down by telling me that magnificent phrase: Let go and let live. If I only got 3 hours of sleep, so be it. That phrase, plus some very cold showers, got me through the rest of the summer. But it’s a phrase that can be applied to so many situations in college and in life. Are you anxious that you took the wrong courses this semester? Take a deep breath and let go and let live. Are you worried about getting your dream job? Let go and let live. It’s a powerful way to live life. To accept that your life won’t meet your most ideal expectations, but then choose to let go and enjoy it anyway. To enjoy all the time we did have at Brown, rather than fixate on the time we didn’t have.

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In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the tyrannical king pushes a boulder up a mountain in the underworld only to have it roll back down every time he reaches the top. It reminds me that we cannot live in desperate search of an imaginary standard of what life should be, because that is a mountain that you will never actually reach the top of. If there’s anything that my time at Brown and being born with only two fingers has taught me, it’s that we can move past anything we consider a roadblock and allow ourselves to pursue careers, relationships and knowledge while still appreciating the blessings that we do have.

When I think back to all those strangers and their startled reactions, I let it roll off my back. That’s because perfection doesn’t exist in any one of us. So I believe it’s best to focus on not what we are missing but on making the most out of what we’ve been given. After all, we are all born lacking.

Ethan Zucker is a graduating senior in Brown's class of 2024.

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