It was about eight years ago and I was on the phone with a friend whom I only spoke to about once a year. We were catching up and I mentioned that Sawyer, my youngest, had recently been diagnosed with Autism. I did not like using that word because of all the drama associated with it, but it was the simplest way I could think to share with this friend that I was parenting a boy that was not going to follow what anyone might describe as the traditional childhood path.
“Oh, Bill,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
“No, no,” I said quickly. “No need to be sorry. It’s not a tragedy.”
And I meant it. Even though at this time Sawyer spent most of his days talking to himself and rarely other people, even though school was beginning to look like an exercise in futility, even though there were days I would have celebrated if he had only turned to me without prompting and said, “Hello, Dad,” I did not for one moment consider Sawyer’s life tragic. Mysterious? Yes. Frustrating? Certainly. But not tragic.
My friend remained unconvinced. “I have a buddy whose kid got that diagnosis,” he explained. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
I understood that my friend was trying to be compassionate. Yet his compassion was actually aimed not at the reality of my life or Sawyer’s life, but the tragic story he was telling about our lives, a story that went something like this: A kid’s life with special needs is more or less over because whatever happiness that kid finds will be some lesser version of happiness. Your life is the happiness you will know, and to have it limited by some genetic fluke is a tragedy. The parents’ smiles and brave support masks the reality that if they had a magic wand they would wave it so that kid could have a real and full and happy life.
That’s tragedy. In drama, a story is considered a tragedy if the hero’s flaw, which is always a misperception of reality, leads to his demise. In what we call a comedy, the hero recognizes his misperception, releases it, and we have a happy ending. In both cases reality is always kinder than the hero first believes. Whether he recognizes this or not determines whether he lives or dies – but we, the audience, for whom the story is being told – are always left with a corrected view of reality, whether that hero saw it or not.
Before parenting Sawyer I was a big believer in tragic stories. The world was full of ‘em. In fact, happy endings were the stuff of Hollywood. Yet the casual tragic stories we tell one another would have us believe that there is some circumstance, be it physical or environmental, in which happiness is literally impossible. I have yet to encounter such a circumstance in my life. Every time I have been unhappy – and there have been many, many, many such moments – it was because I misperceived reality and believed a tragic story I told about that misperception. The only thing that actually stood between me and happiness was the story I was telling.
There are so many circumstances in the world that seem like Hell on earth from where I stand: The city at war, the child who cannot walk or talk, the spouse with cancer. From where I stand, I cannot perceive how happiness is possible in that world. But to then tell a quiet, tragic story about a world I do not understand is to condemn myself to hell, for what is possible there must be possible here, and that is actually how the world ends: Not with a bang, but a whisper.
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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.