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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.