Science and religion don’t usually agree on much, except, it seems, that people can be, and for the most part are, broken. Science sees people as breakable because it is attempting to understand the mechanical aspect of life, and mechanical things break. We are a part of life, parts of us a break all the time, and the only way to make broken things whole is to fix them. Sometimes they can’t be fixed at all. Death is one very a good example of this. No fixing that – and by the way, it’s where we’re all headed.
When I took physics in high school I found its symmetry and mathematical coherence beautiful. For the first time in my Rhode Island public school education I was acquainted with mankind’s attempt to perceive an order to the universe of which I was one small part. Things didn’t just happen willy-nilly; they were always caused by something else. Like an immense machine, the universe had its own ceaseless Newtonian order, clicking away steadily and predictably since the Big Bang.
But I was also a budding writer, an artist, and while I appreciated this order and physics’ mathematical equanimity, I was already all too familiar with free will and its ceaseless role in my life. Every word that made its way to the blank page was a choice. Nothing and no one could make me choose to write or erase a word. I was free to write absolutely anything. There were days I wished I weren’t free, that there was a button I could press on me somewhere from which perfect stories would flow – but this was not the way creation worked. Nor, I came to see, people. Just as I could write anything, I could also do anything. Take drugs or not take drugs. Argue or agree. The only thing compelling me or stopping me was me. I was free.
With all these free wills bouncing around, a little order was needed, and part of that order was found in the concept of sin, a very serious word for bad behavior. Do these things and you have sinned. If you sin, you are a bad person, because bad people do bad things. Order. And really bad people are broken people. Nazis and pedophiles and serial killers and maybe drug addicts and bullies and certain politicians are a few examples of very sinful people who are clearly broken.
And where scientists fixed broken things where possible, religion forgave. I was not raised religious, and I did not like the idea of forgiveness as I had come to understand it. A forgiving person, it seemed to me, perceived sin but was willing to give the sinner another chance. Maybe you were broken and maybe you weren’t. I forgive you, you little rat, but watch it. Tally up enough sins and the forgiveness well runs dry and you are broken.
It was while working with Sawyer that I first glimpsed the combined power of free will and true forgiveness. Sawyer’s behavior, in its own way, was a sin. Unbroken people did not behave the way he did, and so even though his autistic behavior didn’t hurt anyone, it was still a sin because it needed to change. Except the only way to be of use to Sawyer was to remember that he was not his behavior, his behavior was simply a manifestation of his only perceived route to happiness. Could I help him perceive a different route so that he might choose it? Yes, but only if I saw him as he was, not as what he was doing. That was forgiveness – seeing past the imperfect veil of behavior to where humanity’s unbroken perfection resides.
I do not believe in sin anymore than I believe that humans are machines. Of course, I’m no saint, and I forget what I believe all the time, and when I do, I behave accordingly: I fume, I pout, I curse, and I judge, judge, judge. Fortunately, though it always seems like a good idea at the time, such behavior leaves me feeling worse than before. Fortunately, I am free to make another choice, free to find my way back to where everyone is actually headed.
Though I did not understand it at the time, joining Sawyer was my first spiritual practice. Joining, as I have described earlier, was the practice of doing whatever he did, which in our case was running back and forth humming and flapping and thumping our chest. The idea was that instead of telling the child to stop doing what he was doing and join you in the “real world,” you join him in his world and see where it goes from there.
I did not see it as a spiritual practice because, A) I didn’t know there was such a thing; and B) all I was trying to do was get him to spend less time humming and flapping and more time acting like what I believed was a normal kid. This wasn’t so easy. The real challenge in joining wasn’t doing what he was doing, but not judging what he was doing as wrong. This meant that even though I wanted conditions—that is, Sawyer’s behavior—to change, instead of pouring my efforts into changing those conditions, I instead changed my perception of the conditions.
Or in other words, I had to learn to change what I actually had the power to change. Because once my perception of Sawyer changed, once I said to myself, “What if he isn’t broken? What if I’m not broken? What if no one is broken?” conditions did change—namely, my behavior. Then, lo and behold, once my behavior changed, so did the world around me, including Sawyer’s behavior. Moreover, I saw that if I judged humming and flapping as wrong as I hummed and flapped, Sawyer would go into another room to hum and flap in peace. If I didn’t judge it as wrong, he’d stay with me.
Which meant that even the effect my behavior had on the outside world depended entirely upon the perception from which that behavior was born. This is why joining was a spiritual practice. Though the world seems full of conditions that appear to need changing – from children’s behavior, to police departments, to rioting cities – my job is not to correct all those conditions until they suit me. My job is to correct my perceptions of those conditions and then behave accordingly.
I have to admit that this seems like a dangerous choice sometimes, like walking through a warzone without my helmet and bayonet. I pay attention to those conditions precisely because they threaten me. I must remain vigilant and alert, ready to correct conditions with a bayonet thrust or a letter to the editor. Such is the perception from which a world of enemies is grown—enemy nations, enemy weather, enemy children. It is an intolerable world, a world begging for change, a world no one would choose to live in if they believed another world existed.
No One Is Broken could have been told as the story of how a father (and mother) saved a son. Things were looking dark for this little boy until they began joining him and not judging him. It could also be told as the story of how a son saved his father, how the act of not judging this little boy allowed this man to pull himself from his own darkness.
But the truth is no one saved anyone from anything. To be saved would be to suggest we were somehow in danger, that one or both of us were balancing on some precipice beneath which lay suffering without return. I admit there was one night when I perceived myself as having edged up against just such a precipice, and that if I were just a little carless I might fall from life forever despite wishing to remain upright. What I came to understand about that suicidal cliff is that I only reached it because I believed it existed, that the very belief in suffering without relief immediately creates suffering from which the only relief is disbelief.
If that sounds circular, it often felt that way to me. In those early years, when we were first joining Sawyer, there were times when it was as if I were seeing him through some funhouse mirror—one moment he looked broken to me; the very next he did not. All that changed in those two moments was what I was thinking. If I thought he was broken he looked broken; if I did not think he was broken, he did not look broken. The question, it turned out, was not how to save him or fix him; the question was how did I want to see him. If I did not want to see him as broken, then I could not think that he was broken, I could not believe in brokenness.
As a parent, it is tempting to view such a choice as an elaborate excuse to bury your head in the sand, that the job of the parent is to remain ever vigilant to quietly mounting threats. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I do not think there is anything wrong with burying your head in the sand if you are seeing a great many threats. Sometimes you have to close your eyes to see. My only job in life, whether I am a father or a son or a husband or a writer, is to perceive the world without threats. Only then will I know how to take action and move forward in a way that is in alignment with life, rather than dodging landmines of my own invention.
Living in this way becomes a practice in trusting what you do not see. I see landmines all the time. They seem quite real and ready to blow me into a thousand unrecognizable pieces. That’s a deathless moment when I step into that trap anyhow. Blow me up, I say. I’d rather be a thousand pieces in the wind than live in a world full of enemies and bombs. End it if you must. And so I step, and every time I do something else dies in me, into whose space life quickly returns.
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.