When I was a boy, I perceived the world of adults as divided into two groups: adults with grey hair, and adults whose hair wasn’t grey. There was something impenetrably unknowable to me about the lives of all the adults without gray hair. They were all busy, whether they were teachers, or bus drivers, or housewives. I did not truly understand what they were all so busy with, except that it was more important than anything else.
This was not the case with adults with grey hair. Many of them were not busy any more, which meant they were free to play with me. I do not mean to suggest that those other adults, including my parents, never played with me. They often did. It’s just that it was hard for them to completely set aside their busy-ness. It could summon them away as quickly as a thought. But those adults with gray hair seemed to have cleared enough space in their minds to commit as fully as a child to the business of having fun.
This was my job as a child, and I took it seriously. My job was to find the games that were most fun for me to play. No one told me this was my job. I knew it as soon as I had a consciousness that could know something. So did all the other kids, it seemed. However, having fun was sometimes a noisy operation, which could bring children into conflict with a small sub-group of adults with grey hair: those who had no space in their mind for fun whatsoever.
I feared these men and women more than the violent boys I avoided on playgrounds, though I sensed they were kindred spirits of sorts. Some disappointment had calcified in their minds, as if whatever they had been so busy with before they had grey hair had never been completed, and now it was too late. If you got too close to these people, you were sure to be blamed for something. Fortunately, they were easy to spot from a distance.
Eventually, I became one of those adults without grey hair. I have my own children, and I know now what we are all so busy with. I am not going to name it because it doesn’t actually exist, and I am all too aware of my willingness to believe in it. I had not really thought about this until my boys started going to school and returning with homework. My boys hated homework. Getting them to do it was like trying to take my cat for a walk. When I visited a high school a few years ago and asked the kids what they would change about school, they all agreed, “No homework.”
My youngest so hated school and homework that he retreated into his imagination, where he spent so much time that he eventually received the diagnosis of autism. We were advised to give him medication so that he could go to school. If my wife and I had truly believed that school and homework was the only way to prepare him for adulthood, we’d have given him medication. We decided to homeschool him instead. This wasn’t always the easiest choice, but it did seem like the most practical one if our goal for him was a happy adulthood.
He’s seventeen now, and has begun to occasionally worry about his future. I know that if he were getting ready to graduate from a traditional high school, he might be worrying slightly less about that future, but I do not regret our choice to homeschool him. One way or the other he’s going to have to answer the same question that everyone must answer: Why am I here? Can the games I found in childhood lead me through adulthood, or must they end until I earn my happiness? It’s a question I ask every day as my hair grows steadily greyer.
As I have mentioned before, the one thing my wife and I really did with Sawyer early on was to “join” him. Joining is the practice of doing exactly what the child is doing- the idea being that instead of asking Sawyer to stop humming and flapping and beating his chest and join us, we would join him by running and flapping and humming. The effects were immediate: Sawyer went from having five timeouts a day at school to one a week. Yet all we had done was to tell him, in the best language available, that he wasn’t wrong. At the time, it seemed like a small thing. It wasn’t a small thing.
I was talking to Sawyer last week as he worked on an essay that would be a kind of culminating project for this school year. Writing challenges our ideas of write and wrong. The author must decide word-by-word what is right and what is wrong. The answer lies entirely within him; no one can actually tell him if what he has chosen is right or wrong because what he is trying to express exists in a realm beyond anyone else’s perception.
For this reason, writing can be painstaking for Sawyer. He’s expressed how much he wants to write, but when confronted with the blank page his mind jumps to anything other than what he had set out to write. As he struggled to bring his attention to the essay, he talked about school. Sawyer has very strong ideas about school. If asked, he will tell you how the education system is broken, that the kids are treated like cattle, that their intelligence is not respected, that the schools are underfunded and old fashioned. On this day, he began his usual rant, but petered out on it quickly. He looked down at the half-written essay and sighed. “I was always wrong,” he said. “Everything I did was wrong.”
He meant not just the answers he gave in class, but his impulses to soothe himself. At that time he had a limited vocabulary of solutions to the problem of feeling uncomfortable. His best solution was to retreat within himself where he could focus on what he wanted to instead of what he was told to. But, in the world of school and – I must admit – his world at home, this was often called the “wrong” choice. How do you function if your strongest impulse is considered wrong? Where do you look to feel right?
It is simply impossible for me to feel safe and comfortable in the world while simultaneously distrusting my own impulses. When I distrust the silent guidance that helps me choose words and careers and friends I am instantly lost. I have no idea what is right and wrong anymore and I too want to retreat to an island within where nothing can be wrong. Sometimes, however, I do not understand my own impulses, and my translations are awkward and rarely fit easily into the world.
It is as at these times that I most tempted to call myself wrong, and to curse that impulse for it’s wayward guidance. But the guidance is never wrong – not for me, not for Sawyer, not for anyone. It just sometimes asks me to go where I do not believe I am ready to go, or to say what I do not believe I am ready to say. The impulse frequently contradicts a story I believe the world is telling me about good and evil, about love and talent and poverty and wealth and fame and peace. What am I to believe at these crossroads? Obey the impulse and risk being called wrong by others, or disobey it, and know that I will have wronged myself?
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.
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.
Our decision to homeschool Sawyer was the singularly biggest change my wife and I instituted in his life. To be clear, the middle school Sawyer was attending at the time we pulled him out was doing everything possible to support him. The teachers cared deeply for him and were willing to make at times startling accommodations. It did not matter. The social environment of school coupled with the logistics of a few adults overseeing a crowd of children became too challenging to ignore.
I mention this because I do not believe it would have been impossible for Sawyer to find his grounding at school. I do not believe it is impossible for anyone to find their grounding, find their calm and their voice and their willpower, in any single environment. But it is certainly more challenging in certain environments than others. It is easier to feel at peace while at home sitting in your most comfortable chair talking to the ones you love than hiding in a ditch in the middle of a warzone.
School, for a variety of reasons, had become a kind of warzone for Sawyer, and so we brought the soldier home. Gradually, this change of environment had a settling effect on him. It was the first time I perceived that my greatest influence in Sawyer’s life, the one thing I could actually do, was adjust the environment in which he lived, to make it friendlier, calmer, and more inviting. He was not a car whose hood I could lift to adjust the wiring and change the plugs. His thoughts and feelings remained entirely and absolutely his own, a lesson I continue to learn every day. The environment, meanwhile, belonged to all of us.
Of course, as soon as I recognized this I began looking for other environmental changes. Should I buy a drum set to encourage him back into music? Should I buy him a new computer or simply remove all computers? Should I paint his room, make him more smoothies, sign him up for a social group? All decent enough questions, and all the answers would have their own minor effects. Yet none of these changes to Sawyer’s physical environment, including pulling him out of school, would have as significant an effect on him as the changes I made to the environment within myself.
I am not Sawyer’s whole world, but I am wholly responsible for my relationship with him. To love him without worrying about him, without requiring him to behave this way or that way, is to enter the very environment we are all seeking to create. What we call autism is nothing but a search for love. It is very easy to mistake it for something else, to call it a problem or even a disease. What a common misperception. Even war is a frustrated expression of our search for love, a belief that if only we killed everyone who disagreed with us, who challenged us, who looked or prayed or thought different than us, we would know peace, love’s resting position.
I must admit that there are times I resent Sawyer for requiring such unconditional love. I don’t always feel up to it. Just drink the damn smoothie and be okay. Yet I have never been anything but grateful for those moments when I have found unconditional love within myself. To find it is to end, if only temporarily, my ongoing war with life, to find allies where there had been enemies, to find acceptance, in fact, for all that there is, including me.
I welcome feedback and questions. Feel free to post any comments or questions below, or contact me directly.
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.