Anyone who has ever held a newborn in their arms has known unconditional love. What did that child do to deserve your love other than to be? They said nothing, wrote nothing, achieved nothing. They could not compliment you or agree with you or even smile at you. And yet you loved all the same. The only conditions that were met to experience this love were that you existed and that child existed. That was enough.
It’s so easy as the child grows to lose sight of this. Now what we call love gets confused with accomplishment and appeasement. Now the child can disagree with us, can argue with us and criticize us. Now we can we worry about that child’s choices, about the people they date and the careers they choose. It is so easy to let what we call love to get mixed up in all of this, to mistake that feeling of relief when we finally decide not worry about them for the peace inherent in loving someone.
Sometimes it felt to me as if Sawyer had been sent to earth specifically to teach me the meaning of unconditional love. For years, I felt as if he was saying, “Will you love me even if I do this? What about this? What if I say this or don’t do that? What if I don’t achieve anything? What if I don’t care if I don’t achieve anything?”
It was not an easy question to answer. I wanted him to stop doing certain things and start doing other things, to just behave more or less like all the other humans. And sometimes it seemed that the only tool I had in this little war was my love, which I could withhold until his will had bent to my wishes. Fortunately, he was incredibly stubborn. By and by I learned that he would only agree to meet me in the space opened between us by unconditional love. I didn’t actually care what he did. I only wanted him to be happy, and I could not always understand where he found happiness in what he was doing.
And sometimes I didn’t understand where I found my own happiness. How easy it was to mistake my conditions for the happiness I did or did not feel. I got an acceptance letter and I am happy; a rejection letter and I was sad. In such a world, I was a slave to the conditions in which I found myself, a pinball bounced from place to place, my happiness the sum total of the pieces life has given me.
Love creates conditions, it does not respond to them. If those children called autistic teach us nothing else, it is that love—that feeling within me that is both content and curious, that is both awakening and at rest—is waiting only for my attention, not the happy popping of champagne corks. No condition is so horrible, impoverished, or hopeless that love would simply pack up and leave. Indeed those very conditions, like the child who retreats within himself, are often the shadows in which the light of love can shine brightest.
Most people’s concept of brokenness is abstract in the same way most people’s expression of racism is abstract. That is, I have known people who have said that black people, or white people, or Chinese people, or whatever people are this way or that way. It is as if they are in an antagonistic relationship with this abstract other, a relationship that feels real enough to them that they will spend considerable real time and attention to avoid that group.
Meanwhile, they sometimes find themselves in a specific relationship with a black, white, Chinese or whatever person. If the relationship is very brief – change from a cashier, companion on a bus – it can remain in the abstract; but if it takes any kind of root, if there is any kind of conversation, inevitably that antagonistic abstract idea of the other is replaced by an actual human relationship, a relationship based on what that person said or did specifically. Now, we might even hear, “I don’t like black people, but John’s okay. He’s not like the rest of them.”
Our brokenness is as insidiously abstract as racism, because of course what we call racism is yet another expression of brokenness. Black people are broken because they are this way; or white people are broken because they are that way. They can’t help it. In fact, it becomes a form of weird compassion. I had a driving instructor when I was twenty who said of a group of boys who cut in front of us on their bikes, “It’s okay. It’s not their fault. They’re just black.”
As odious as that sounds, he was actually reaching for compassion, the exact same concept of compassion often applied to kids on the spectrum. One of Sawyer’s elementary school teachers, a woman who asked to have him in her class because she so adored him – adored the specifics of the relationship with him as one person can only adore another—this teacher insisted that his most difficult behavior was not his fault because it was beyond his control. In this way, to call him anything but broken, to believe it was his choice, would actually be to accuse him of something worse, of choosing to talk to himself, for instance, instead of doing math. Better to say he has to talk to himself and feel sorry for him.
It is tempting to despair when I see the disparity between the abstract and the specific. I know that just as the abstract idea of brokenness can lull a teacher into viewing a child as incapable of choosing different behaviors, so too abstract racism can become real immigration laws, or lynchings, or The Holocaust. How can one not despair given such atrocities? My despair is not a choice but a consequence. Yet to despair is to believe in the broken boogieman we have all invented, a monster that would annoy us or disrupt us or harm us because it is incapable of choosing otherwise. In my despair, I become the boogieman himself, the one who has lost the power to choose his own happiness.
It was about eight years ago and I was on the phone with a friend whom I only spoke to about once a year. We were catching up and I mentioned that Sawyer, my youngest, had recently been diagnosed with Autism. I did not like using that word because of all the drama associated with it, but it was the simplest way I could think to share with this friend that I was parenting a boy that was not going to follow what anyone might describe as the traditional childhood path.
“Oh, Bill,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no,” I said quickly. “No need to be sorry. It’s not a tragedy.”
And I meant it. Even though at this time Sawyer spent most of his days talking to himself and rarely other people, even though school was beginning to look like an exercise in futility, even though there were days I would have celebrated if he had only turned to me without prompting and said, “Hello, Dad,” I did not for one moment consider Sawyer’s life tragic. Mysterious? Yes. Frustrating? Certainly. But not tragic.
My friend remained unconvinced. “I have a buddy whose kid got that diagnosis,” he explained. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
I understood that my friend was trying to be compassionate. Yet his compassion was actually aimed not at the reality of my life or Sawyer’s life, but the tragic story he was telling about our lives, a story that went something like this: A kid’s life with special needs is more or less over because whatever happiness that kid finds will be some lesser version of happiness. Your life is the happiness you will know, and to have it limited by some genetic fluke is a tragedy. The parents’ smiles and brave support masks the reality that if they had a magic wand they would wave it so that kid could have a real and full and happy life.
That’s tragedy. In drama, a story is considered a tragedy if the hero’s flaw, which is always a misperception of reality, leads to his demise. In what we call a comedy, the hero recognizes his misperception, releases it, and we have a happy ending. In both cases reality is always kinder than the hero first believes. Whether he recognizes this or not determines whether he lives or dies – but we, the audience, for whom the story is being told – are always left with a corrected view of reality, whether that hero saw it or not.
Before parenting Sawyer I was a big believer in tragic stories. The world was full of ‘em. In fact, happy endings were the stuff of Hollywood. Yet the casual tragic stories we tell one another would have us believe that there is some circumstance, be it physical or environmental, in which happiness is literally impossible. I have yet to encounter such a circumstance in my life. Every time I have been unhappy – and there have been many, many, many such moments – it was because I misperceived reality and believed a tragic story I told about that misperception. The only thing that actually stood between me and happiness was the story I was telling.
There are so many circumstances in the world that seem like Hell on earth from where I stand: The city at war, the child who cannot walk or talk, the spouse with cancer. From where I stand, I cannot perceive how happiness is possible in that world. But to then tell a quiet, tragic story about a world I do not understand is to condemn myself to hell, for what is possible there must be possible here, and that is actually how the world ends: Not with a bang, but a whisper.
I was sitting with a friend once when the question of whether we could or could not be broken came up. This friend had what he would happily describe as a scientific view of the world, meaning he viewed life as a mechanical experience. There is a comfort in understanding life in this way. If something is wrong then, like all mechanical things, it must be broken, and if it is broken, you need only fix it and whatever was wrong will now be right. However, to maintain this comfort, everything must be breakable, including people.
Our discussion quickly moved to children, and for good reason. Adults who do terrible, broken things like Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot might not have started out broken, but instead have become broken by the cruelties of life, the way a toy might break over time from misuse. But if a child arrives in the world broken, then it is as if he has come out of the box missing certain crucial pieces that no amount of tape or glue can repair. In this way, these broken children are actually necessary to maintain a mechanical view of the world.
“What about the children,” he asked, “who are born without the ability to feel compassion? They simply can’t do it. They’re going to go on to become serial killers because they have no empathy. How are they not broken?”
How tempted I was to demand some evidence that these children even existed. I so hated this view of the world that I wanted to slay it with the sharp arrows of argument. Yet his question triggered within me a question I had never bothered to ask until that evening, a question I would not have asked if I had tried to prove somehow to this man that people couldn’t be broken.
“Even if such a child were born,” I said, “just because we don’t know at this time how to help that child learn to feel compassion, doesn’t mean we can’t learn to help that child feel compassion. And even if we never learn to help him feel compassion, that doesn’t mean we won’t. Are we really willing to give up on the idea that we could learn? Why would we do that?”
He agreed he had no interest in giving up on learning, and I felt the relief that comes when I stop trying to prove an enemy wrong and begin instead to speak to a friend from what I know has always been right. For instance, I have always known that learning itself is an act of faith, though I had never named such until that night. It is impossible to prove that you will learn something. Instead, you aim the arrow of your attention toward what you wish to learn and have something resembling faith that you will learn it. This is how the possible becomes the actual, how we launched rockets to the moon and built the Internet and wrote books and started businesses. And the only thing that can actually stand between us and this learning, the only thing that can actually stand between the possible and the actual is this useless, end-of-creation story of brokenness.
If brokenness is an option, we can place brokenness between ourselves and the world in which we wish to live. This is what my friend did accidentally. His perception of these children’s potential stopped where they were. They were broken. There was nothing more to do or think about them. But if no one is broken, if we take it off the table completely, then learning, which is our constant, conscious expansion of perception, remains not only possible, but inevitable.
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.