Today I am pleased to open this space to a special writing guest: my wife, author and illustrator Jennifer Paros. I cannot think of a better companion for the journey that is parenthood than Jen. I hope you enjoy this piece as much as I did when I first read it.
Reality is the leading cause of stress among those in touch with it. ~ Lily Tomlin
When my youngest son was three years old, at the suggestion of his concerned preschool teacher, we agreed to a state assessment of his “needs.” But after the evaluation, the specialist’s observations sounded like a scientific field log – as though she’d been in the bushes with binoculars. The subject thumped his chest repeatedly and ran back and forth. The more she shared, the clearer it was that the observed facts were only leading her further from understanding him.
What I learned in the next round of evaluations was: if my son was disinterested in doing what was asked of him and opted not to do it, the observer concluded he was unable to do it. I learned that what he did at home, he wouldn’t necessarily perform during a test at school. I learned that the observer and the observed have an influential relationship on each other that affects results and data. And I learned that, though his behavior seemed to be the problem, observing, labeling, and trying to alter that behavior did nothing to serve him, because the focus wasn’t actually on him, it was on identifying what was wrong with him.
I grew weary of the facts, and of the conclusions drawn from those facts. Beyond observation, there was something more important about my son and his story that would never be grasped through a pair of binoculars. I felt confounded by the contrast between my knowing sense of him and external evidence of his behavior. The process of “facing reality” was leaving me out of balance and feeling unstable – not because I had a son with a diagnosis, but because stability comes from the inside, and all my attention was on the outside.
There is an exercise for improving one’s balance. It involves standing on one foot with eyes closed. This is challenging because a big part of what we usually use to stabilize ourselves is the visual field. This exercise, in which observation is eliminated, is said to build the greatest balance. It’s been my experience that the only true way to regain my emotional and mental balance and stability involves no longer trying to use external reality to stabilize me but in finding it within myself – eyes closed.
Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world.
~ Edward Hopper
If I think about how others might perceive what I’m doing – or me – I lose my footing in what I want to create. There is no quicker way to get confused in the creation of anything than to look outside us (reviews, “likes” on Facebook, editors, spouses, experts . . .). The guidance we need to create whatever we want comes embedded within our drive to create. No external feedback can ever be as relevant as our personal vision and feeling of connection to our work. This personal reality is the necessary litmus test for all incoming commentary, advice, or constructive criticism. We are the ones who know our (inner) worlds. It is up to us to align with those realities. And when we don’t, our equilibrium is compromised, for it is investment in our inner reality that balances our perspective on our outer experiences.
J.D. Salinger, famous for his writing, reclusiveness, and dislike of publicity, said “There is marvelous peace in not publishing . . . Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” Salinger didn’t like fame, the concept of which focuses solely on the attention of others; he didn’t want his attention out there, and so strove to block out anything that might inspire his focus to stray. In his way, he did his best to “close his eyes” to the world and find balance and stability from within.
We don’t have to hide, protect ourselves, or seek externally to find balance. Balance is achieved through deliberate attention to our personal truth. It took me a while, but I came to understand that what was distressing me wasn’t the reality of my son’s behavior; it was my own lack of attention to the experience of my personal reality of him. The feeling of instability always cues us to close our eyes and find our center where it actually exists. The seed of what we want is present in here where the vision for our creative work – whether a project or a relationship – always exists first.
Many of the adult writing clients I work with suffer from the same challenge both my sons encountered when they were first given schoolwork: It’s hard to do something when you think you don’t want to do it. It’s understandable. Human beings are built to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We want to feel good. If we make ourselves do something we don’t want to do, we won’t feel good, and so we usually find reasons not to do it. It’s almost mathematical.
It took me a while to understand what was happening with my clients. They had sought me out because they had a book they wanted to write. When I asked them about their book, they would become animated. This book had their attention. It was a bright, interesting, delicious idea they wanted to share with other people. And yet they couldn’t seem to bring themselves to write. They were lazy, they’d say. Not disciplined. Scattered.
None of this was true. These people are never broken; rather, they made writing the book a chore rather than a pleasure. They turned a new passion into something they should do or must do. My job as their coach was to help them understand that the pleasure in the doing is enough to motivate us to do it regularly. In fact, it won’t even be motivation; it’ll simply be what we want to do, the way we want to eat when we are hungry.
Adults often have trouble believing this. We’ve taught ourselves to work, to chop wood because we’re cold not because we feel like swinging an axe, and to do the dishes because we need something clean to eat off of not because we want to put our hands in soapy water. Indeed, the daily business of being a successful adult human can sometimes feel like a triumph of duty of desire. When we lay down on our deathbed we can look back with satisfaction knowing we spent our lives doing what we were supposed to, not what we wanted to.
In this way, I have to teach adults to think like children, who arrive on the planet knowing – as everyone once did – that the best reason in the world to do something is because it’s fun to do it. Unfortunately, schoolwork does not look like much fun to most kids, certainly not my boys when they were younger. And so they were being asked to do something against their best and most creative impulse, and they rightly rebelled.
As Sawyer’s father and now teacher my job has been to help him find the pleasure in what often appears pleasure-less. This was not easy for me at first because I too have long believed that certain things are fun and certain things simply aren’t. But, being a responsible adult, I made myself do those pleasure-less things because they needed doing. This was a meager and dishonest view of my life. Pleasure exists within me independent of what I am doing. I need only find how that pleasure expresses itself in whatever I am doing, and lo! I am enjoying it.
Teaching someone how to find pleasure in something that appears boring is a delicate business. No force can be applied; no carrot or stick should be insinuated. The pleasure must be allowed to appear effortlessly and naturally. Often, my best strategy is to do nothing at all, but instead to find the pleasure in watching Sawyer find his own way in to whatever he’s doing. The moment I stop enjoying this experience is the moment I cease to teach him anything; the moment I resume is when I learn again what he has come here to teach me.
A couple years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Neill on my weekly Blogtalk radio show Author2Author. Michael is a life coach, author, and all around inspiring guy. At the time I interviewed him he had just published The Inside-Out Revolution, based on his work with something called The Three Principles, which, among other things, connects how we feel and what we perceive to the thoughts we think.
When Michael came upon The Three Principals he was already enjoying great success. He had published two books and was a much sought-after teacher and speaker. But, like a lot of spiritual writers and thinkers, his journey to inspire and help others began with a desire to understand his own despair – which, in Michael’s case, expressed itself in periodic thoughts of suicide.
In our interview he described how the techniques he had once used to deal with his despair seemed to do little more than stave off a waiting darkness. He said that during this period of his life, despite being married to a woman he loved and doing work he loved and for which he was generously compensated, he felt as though he was always two very bad weeks away from wanting to kill himself.
Then he found The Three Principles, which taught him that there is a big difference between thinking you would like to kill yourself and actually wanting to kill yourself. This was a great relief to him because, as he said to me at the end of this story, “I realized I wasn’t broken.”
Which is why this blog and the coming book are called No One is Broken. Michael is one of those writers and teachers from whom I have learned much. He’s funny, insightful, compassionate, and thriving. And yet not so very long ago he lived with the quiet and persistent thought that he was broken. I do not think he is unique. I think the persistent thought of brokenness follows everyone in sometimes quiet and sometimes very loud ways. I also think that there is nothing worse we could ever think of ourselves than that we are broken.
I began all this when my son was diagnosed with what is called Autism, but I have long known that this work really has nothing to do with that word. Autism itself is just a thought, a word we invented when we saw some people behaving differently than we had expected. Yet just like a sentence on a page, a thought is either in service to the story of our life or it is not. If it is not, then it must go, and because it is nothing, because it has no teeth that can bite us or claws that can hold us, it can exact no revenge for its dismissal. It was never really here in the first place.
I believe the thought of Autism is destined for this erasure. It has never served us, linked unconsciously as it has become to the concept of brokenness. It is not an evil word, however. It’s just a first draft of a thought, an impulse response to our fear that some of us are just not as good as the others. When it is gone, we will perceive the empty space reserved for the answer that we had been asking for in our grief and despair. That too had been following us, sometimes quietly, sometimes quite loudly, waiting for its chance to be heard above the din of an old and useless story.
Standing on the brink of age fifty, I have never been happier with the work I am doing and the life I am living. But if you had told me when I turned forty that in ten years I would be writing a blog called No One Is Broken, and that I would be coaching clients and interviewing writers and editing a magazine and homeschooling my son, I would have thought you were describing the life of some strange Bill Kenower lookalike. At that time I still had one plan and one plan only – to become a novelist. I had been preparing diligently for that job since I was twenty-five. Having a firm and dedicated plan, it seemed to me, is how one made his way in the adult world.
Yet here I am. The path I have traveled over the last decade has been anything but direct, and has unfurled step-by-step as all my myriad plans came and went. What has surprised me most about where I am now is not the content of what I am writing, nor that I am homeschooling my youngest son, nor that I have clients, but that all the while I was living life as I thought it should be lived, life itself was preparing me for the life I would most want to live. My hours spent wondering idly about what makes me human prepared me for this blog; my early frustration with traditional schooling prepared me for homeschooling; and my lifelong preference for the confessional intimacy of one-on-one conversation prepared me for coaching.
I do not think there is anything unique about my story. In fact, I think it is the only story. A human could no more meaningfully plan his life than a gardener could construct a flower molecule by molecule. The movement of life and the gravitational pull of love operate independently of any nearsighted human plans. This is a particularly poignant truth for parents whose children have been diagnosed on the spectrum. In many ways, our fears for these children are a reflection of the scripts we have unconsciously written for their future and our inability to perceive how the life we imagine for them can be reached from where they are now.
But how exactly am I supposed to know what Sawyer’s life as he is living it right now is preparing him for the life he will lead if I could not know what my own life was preparing me for? All I know as I look at him is that the organizational properties of love, the constant and faithful guidance of preference and curiosity, are as operative in him as they are in me. Life excludes no one. Life abandons no one. This is not an indifferent game won or lost by the toss of some genetic dice.
Which is to say, in those cramped and dark hours when I begin to worry because I do not know how he will be okay somewhere out beyond the limited horizon of my perception, I must remind myself that it was never my job to know how he would be okay but that he already is okay. This I can always see if I choose to look for it. It comes disguised as whatever’s happening at exactly that moment, life so ordinary it is easily unrecognizable for what it always is.
While he was in school, Sawyer was a part of “inclusion programs,” meaning he spent most of his time in traditional classrooms with support. That support was a special education teacher who would be available to help him with the class work if he did not understand the instructions or to intercede if his behavior got out of line.
For many years, I could not imagine Sawyer functioning in the world outside of our house without this kind of support. There were days after I had reminded him to brush his teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, go to the bathroom, come inside, put on his shoes, stay on the sidewalk, lower his voice that it seemed a wonder that he knew to breathe without me reminding him to. It can be a little exhausting sheepherding your son through life, but it also left me feeling needed and with the vague illusion that I was maintaining some control over a situation that frequently seemed teetering on the brink of chaos.
As a writing teacher and coach, students and clients come to me also looking for support. Facing a blank page and finding the story you most want to tell can feel like a lonely and frightening and chaotic journey. How does one know which is the right word or idea or character? Writing a story is a journey I have taken often enough now to know that I am never taking it alone. I may be the only one at my desk, but writing has always felt like a conversation, like a relationship, and as long as I remember to treat it as such, the answer to the question, “What should come next?” is always answered by and by.
This is the support I aim to offer my students and clients, to remind them that they already have everything they need to answer all their creative questions. I could never take the place of that friend we call our imagination, our muse, our guide. All I can do is remind them that such a friend exists.
So too with Sawyer. That friend to whom I turn in my creative life does not head home once I am done writing. He does not differentiate between the question, “How best should I describe this scene?” and, “What do I want for dinner?” It is all the same to him. It is easy to think that because Sawyer has appeared lost in the world that the same friend that has guided me through books and love affairs and careers has for some reason been mute in his life. It is easy to think I must be that friend.
But I cannot, and the friendliest thing I could do is to somehow remind him to listen to that which is already speaking to him, to remind him that he is fully equipped for is journey. Once he understands how supportive and loyal that friend is, he is going to leave. That is the direction of his life. A part of me can already feel how I will miss the unique intimacy this kind of parent-child relationship, but in truth he will not be taking with him on his journey anything I do not already possess. To believe otherwise is to believe we are all incomplete and unsupported, a lost herd of lonely sheep, set astray in a world in which freedom equals isolation.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.