If you had ever asked me if I cared what anyone else thought of me as a parent, I would have honestly answered no. This is because most of my time as a father has been spent in the privacy of my house, where there are no relatives or strangers to offer opinions or shoot critical looks my way. Moreover, though it may take a village to raise a child, my relationship with my sons is wholly private. In fact, though we share nearly every thought that crosses our mind about our boys, my wife’s relationship with our sons is hers, and mine is mine because I cannot be her and she cannot be me.
Which is why I would have said I do not care what anyone thinks about me as a parent. Except I am not a shut-in. I must occasionally leave my home, and I sometimes take my children with me. Out and about in the world is where I most often sympathize with the autistic impulse to retreat into myself. I read recently about a woman who had had a profound near death experience that left her able – in her words – to read everyone’s thoughts. She spent most of the rest of her earthly life holed up in her house, protected from the ceaseless stream of other people’s interior lives.
Hers, it seemed to me, was merely an extreme example of what everyone can experience in some way or another. Though I cannot read minds, I can read the shifting inner weather of any friend or stranger I meet. I do not know the true cause of these shifts, but I sense them just the same, and I have learned – slowly – that to be happy in the world I must not concern myself with anyone else’s storms or even sunshine. They are not mine; they are as private as my relationship with my sons.
This is much easier to do when I am alone. But when I was with Sawyer in particular, and when as a boy he would run and flap in stores or on the street, or begin screaming because I would not buy him this or that, I felt my focus exploding outward. All at once my mind was filled with the thoughts of other people. That I was not hearing the thoughts but actually thinking them for these friends and strangers was irrelevant. Now I was living in a storm of shame and self-consciousness.
How appealing the autistic bubble seemed just then. The power to inoculate myself forever from the influence of other people even at the expense of love or friendship seemed well worth it. It did not matter that the storm was entirely within me. It was triggered by the combination of Sawyer’s behavior and the presence of another human being whose mind, for whatever reason, I could not trust. If only, like my son frequently seemed capable, I could simply go about the world as if these people did not exist. If only I could ignore them completely I could dwell forever on a sunny island, isolated but storm-free.
I am happy to report that I have chosen not to maroon myself. I do not need to isolate myself, but only remember myself. Though it is easy for me to become lost in the dream of other people’s thoughts, to find myself even in the most crowded of public squares is to return to where I have always lived. There I am home, where all relationships are in their proper, private order. There I am home, where other people are free to visit or not, and if I listen honestly there has only ever been the sound of the sea.
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.