I have two sons. My oldest son, Max, decided around age eleven that school was a just a game he needed to play if he was going to get where he wanted to go. From that time forward it was relatively easy for him. He graduated high school near the top of his class, he was elected Junior Class President, he was a member of the debate team, he was offered a scholarship to American University, and was one of two seniors selected to speak at his commencement. He also had a girlfriend, for the record.
My younger son, Sawyer, decided around age twelve that he wanted nothing more to do with school, and he has been homeschooled ever since. He has never been a member of any team, he has never won an award, nor does he have a circle of friends. He was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was seven.
Do not be fooled by this list, however. Max and Sawyer are different in the way all brothers are different and are similar in the way all brothers are similar, just as two branches grow in different directions from the same tree. Lists of accolades and diagnoses form extremely misleading portraits. Missing are the thousands of tiny choices that make up a day, choices that ultimately determine the course of a life.
As their father, my concern is not that list of accolades and diagnoses, but those tiny choices that make up a day. And not their choices – but mine. No matter how different their choices and experiences, my job remains exactly the same: To ask myself, whenever my boys and I are relating, “What is the very best thing I can do or say at this moment?” That’s it. My job is not to fix them or plan their lives or even teach them right from wrong.
It is a very simple job that nonetheless requires my full attention because no two moments are ever the same. Sometimes the best thing to do is to tell a story, and sometimes the best thing to do is to listen to a story; sometimes the best thing to do is give a little advice, and sometimes the best thing to do is take a little advice. Of course, sometimes I do not give a moment my full attention, which is always when I find other people most annoying. When I don’t give a moment my full attention, instead of asking, “What’s the best thing I can do or say?” I usually ask myself, “What the hell is wrong with that person?”
The answer to that question is always, “Nothing.” Yes, sometimes that other person is upset, or scared, or angry, or tired, or confused – but nothing is ever wrong with them. They are never broken. If I ask honestly ask myself, “What’s the best thing I can do?” I always get an answer. If I ask, “What is wrong with that person?” any answer I hear is merely an invention of my own fear that life itself has somehow gone off-kilter and I must now correct it.
That is not a job I want. I’ve attempted it often, with very poor results. In fact, I could no more do that job than teach a tree to grow. Whether I am a parent or child, the best I can ever do is align myself with where I authentically want to go. This choice requires my full attention, but the benefits of giving that attention are always immediate. No sooner do I do so than I am back with myself, and my boys, and all those other people of which a life is made.
I love the work I do, which is to write and talk to people about how to make something on purpose. These days I mostly talk to people who are writing or who want to write because a blank page will tell you all you need to know about how responsible we really are for the world we live in. And for writers, the single greatest obstacle to an effortless, pleasurable, profitable writing experience is this thought: What will other people think of it?
I know this because I spent about twenty years writing into the headwind of that unanswerable question. To write without that question is heaven and to write with it is hell. I was reminded of this the other day when I slipped and found myself asking it again. Soon I was feeling the hopeless, life-draining vertigo that comes every time I try to create something to meet other people’s expectations. I knew this feeling intimately. For twenty years, it was what I called normal.
On that day, I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to quit writing and let the feeling pass. As I began returning to myself and life seemed worth living again, it was easy to view my little slip as a narrow escape from Hell. But for my awareness I’d be there still, trapped in a world without happiness. One must be vigilant, tend the fires our heart, lest the world go dark again.
Except here’s the truth: though I would not want to go back to that Hellish place, I do not know how I would be able to do the work I’m doing now without the twenty years I spent there. The experience of trying and trying and trying to create something that will please other people has been invaluable as I write and talk about creating things without thinking about other people. It is the source of my authority.
It is easy for me to believe this same vigilance must be applied to my son Sawyer. But for my attention our world could become a science fiction dystopia, a hellish place where he never thrives because he never learns and changes. This vigilance is unnecessary for two reasons. First, everyone learns and grows. It doesn’t matter what label you have or haven’t received in your life, you will learn and grow. It’s what humans do, whether they want to or not.
Second, somewhere in the future a flower I cannot at the moment perceive will bloom for Sawyer, a flower whose roots were sown in all the turbulence and uncertainty of the present I can perceive. That I wish to see and hold that flower now has been the suffering of my life. Let me see the prize so that I might know the game was worth playing. The game is always worth playing once I allow myself to play it. All the prizes I’ve received in my life have been lost or forgotten, and the still the game goes on. The game does not recognize victory or defeat, it just goes on and on, with no boundaries, and no clock, just the field and all the equal players.
On July 1 first I’ll be teaching a No One Is Broken class at East West Bookshop in Seattle, WA. This will be the first time I’ll officially teach this class, although I feel as if I’ve been teaching it for years. There isn’t a class or a workshop I’ve taught or a lecture I’ve given that hasn’t included stories about Sawyer and me. Ostensibly, these classes, workshops, and lectures have been for writers who wanted to become better writers, but I often find myself wondering what these students have really come to learn.
I am reminded of something the novelist Deb Caletti said during our first interview. Writers often fall into two different camps: those who can outline, and those who absolutely can’t. Deb is one of the latter. “I don’t know how I’d teach writing,” she confessed. “For me, it’s kind of like just going down the rabbit hole.” Deb writes without much of a plan, you see. She has something she’s interested in and she follows it. If she’s authentically interested, that interest leads her deep into that rabbit hole.
The rabbit hole has been given many names. Some call it simply the imagination, others the flow, or the zone, or the vortex. But I do like the rabbit hole, for when you enter it fully you feel very much as if you’ve followed a white rabbit into an alternate reality. Most writers I know prefer that reality to the one in which they must otherwise live.
And for good reason. When you’re deep down in the rabbit hole, you forget to regret the past or worry about the future, you forget about fear, and you forget about effort. In the rabbit hole, there is only the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought and the next interesting thought. In the rabbit hole, the only right is what belongs in the story and the only wrong is what does not belong in the story. In the rabbit hole, there is no judgment, no comparison, no failure and no success even. The rabbit hole is all success.
When I teach writing, I am really teaching my students to believe in the rabbit hole. The laws of the rabbit hole seem to contradict the physical and emotional laws of the world we all get about in every day. Many of my students have worked very hard all their adult life to learn the rules of the world so they might have something resembling success there. In my classes, I ask them to forget all those rules, and follow the white rabbit of their unique curiosity.
This is exactly what I’ll be teaching next week in my No One Is Broken class. There are no broken people in the rabbit hole. Only physical things can break, and in this alternate reality my wholeness is known as what I love is known. In fact, in this reality my wholeness and love are one and the same.
I much prefer this alternate reality, but I must believe in it to live there. It is easy enough to disbelieve it, and then, as quick as a thought, the world is filled with broken people once again. They’re everywhere, including the mirror. Now, all I want to do is fix the world and everyone in it. An impossible task that, and exhausting too, and somewhere in my fatigue, after all my fixing has led to nothing, I glimpse a tuft white hair, and it’s moving quick, and now I’m up and I’m after it.
If you’re in the Seattle area, and you’d like to attend the class, you can sign up here.
The essays I publish here could best be described as a spiritual view of what we call Autism. I am still somewhat uneasy with the word spiritual because of the many contradictory connotations surrounding it, but it remains the most accurate destination for what I wish to share. I have come to understand all spiritual teaching – whether in this space, or the books published by Hay House or New World Library, or in the Bible, or even from a particularly compassionate bartender – as an attempt to direct one’s attention to our unconditional wellbeing.
I spent most of my life being bounced around by conditions. I was bounced around by whether girls liked me or not, by rejection and acceptance letters, by my bank account, politics, sports, the weather. There are a lot of conditions and each one, it seemed, had the potential to make or break my day. And sometimes I made up the conditions. I would lie in my bed at night imagining a future where a trail of failure and bad luck led me to a wasteland from which there was no return.
About the time Sawyer came along and began to be observed and tested I started wondering if it had ever been the conditions that bounced me around. To see your son being observed can be a disorienting experience. As his father, my job had been to love him. Within love there is no right and wrong; there is only love. But I knew the experts observing him were noting what he had done right and what he done wrong on their little clipboards.
I did not like all this note taking they were doing, but was this not how the world worked? Was there not right and wrong all about me, and had I not lived my life naming this thing right and that thing wrong? Why should my little boy be spared the knife of good and bad? Because I loved him? How irresponsible to let a thing like love blind me to all that was wrong and prevent me from fixing it.
Fortunately, children teach adults far more than adults teach children. In his own way, Sawyer – like every child with every parent – asked me every day, “Which do you believe in more: Love, or right and wrong?” There was only one answer, of course, but oh how terrifying it seemed sometimes. How am I to protect myself from what is wrong unless I name it? How am I to stay safe from my enemies if I do not recognize them?
Sometimes choosing to love unconditionally feels like the last choice I’ll ever make. It as if I am lowering my shield, and only in that vulnerable moment will I learn the truth about the world. As soon as I lower it, however, I realize I would choose death over lugging that heavy shield about. I did not come here just to spend my days dodging and parrying blows. If life is not love then let it end, and if it is then let it be the only eyes through I see the world.
The biggest obstacle I encountered with Sawyer when he was much younger was the idea that there was a problem I needed to solve. The problem, as I saw it, was that his behavior – his talking to himself, his lack of participation in school and at home, his humming and flapping – was incompatible with society as I understood it. If it was incompatible, then he would never know success on any level, because success always involves other people in some way or another, and if he never knew success then I would have failed as a father and I would never be happy.
If something exists that can come between me and happiness then it is a problem. If I cannot be happy I do not much feel like being alive. Without joy, without enthusiasm, without curiosity, without passion, without love, without excitement, this experience called life is a dull, meaningless forced march toward the grave. In this way, happiness – in all its myriad manifestations – is my reason for living, and if something arises that can blot out the sun of my joy, life on Planet Bill will cease to exist in any meaningful fashion.
Problems, you see, are threats to my very existence. Dramatic you say? Most definitely. But these thoughts occur quickly and quietly in my mind, and before I know what’s happening my son talking to himself in the grocery store stirs a fight or flight panic in my chest. Now, it’s every man for himself. Now, I am afraid, and all fear ever wants is for something to stop. Fear knows nothing about creation, only destruction. The choices I make while running for my life always lead me somewhere I do not want to be – because every choice is creative, whether I like it or not.
Love, on the other hand, is all about creating on purpose. And love is the truth of my relationship to Sawyer, to myself, and to life all around me. Love never asks, “How can I stop that?” Love only asks, “How can I have more of this?” Love knows that the more I create of one thing, the less I have of another. The useful question, then, is always how can I have more of this that I enjoy? If I observed Sawyer paying attention to me or his friends or the world around him, I would ask, “There! He just did it. How can I help to bring more of that?”
It may seem subtle, but the difference between asking, “How can I stop this?” and, “How can I have more of that?” is the difference between fear and love. It is also the difference between a world full of problems, and a world without problems; a world full of broken people, and a world without broken people. Love does not see problems. All love sees is more love.
I do not always see the world through the eyes of love. Sometimes to do so seems irresponsible. A man must be vigilant, lest the hyenas of trouble creep up on his vulnerable world. When I look for problems, I always find them. They are everywhere, hiding in every shadow. The world, I have noticed, is full of shadows. My imagination can put anything at all in a shadow, can hide any thought, can tell any story, even though the shadows I fear are nothing but the trace of the movement of light.
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.