Ten minutes later we heard the thump-thump-thump of toddler feet, a door opened and closed, and there he was, standing in our doorway, beaming with discovery. Look what he could do! He could leave his room if he wanted. He was free! Adorable, but back in he went. Until he came out again. And again, and again, and again. Jen and I would eventually have to station ourselves in a chair outside his bedroom door to send this little boomerang back to bed.
Parenting in this way became a journey into the depth and meaning of freewill. I soon understood that no matter the appearance, my children did absolutely nothing because I told them to. It was in fact impossible to make anyone choose anything, even a tiny person who could not dress himself. Choice occurred within a sovereign realm, and no amount of yelling, threats, or bribes could cross that boundary. What we called compliance or obedience was really an agreement.
And then Sawyer came along, and by and by he received his diagnosis, and now people were talking about him as if he had no freewill. His behaviors, it seemed, were not his choice, but some kind of mechanical manifestation of this thing that had happened to him called autism. Usually, this perspective was an expression of compassion. Who on earth would choose such a limitation? No, this has happened to these children, they were victims of some genetic bad luck, and it was our job to help them and feel sorry for them.
It was only when I began to view Sawyer’s behaviors as a choice – albeit a choice made with limited information – that I actually felt I could help him. That is to say, like every other person on earth, all Sawyer wanted was to be happy. For a time, he did not understand how to be happy while playing with other people, and so he played only by himself. Our job was to find a way to reveal to him the pleasure of other people’s company so that he could choose it if he so wished, which eventually he did.
But first we had to acknowledge that his will was as free as ours. It was tempting at times to believe otherwise. There were days he seemed so unreachable to us that it was easier to simply call him broken, to believe that we could not find a way to reach him because there was nothing to reach, that his behaviors were as immutable as the ticking of a clock. It was a story we told in exhaustion and frustration, and a story that left us feeling hopeless about Sawyer and ourselves.
There are certainly times I wish I had no freewill, that I could wake up and there would be a list of activities and thoughts and conversations left for me on my dresser that if followed would lead to my perfect wellbeing. I know all too well my capacity to choose my own misery. But I have also known the delicious pleasure of choosing to agree with life. In that moment the idea of surrendering my freewill seems as suicidal as it does impossible, for life’s pleasure is not simply being happy, but choosing to find happiness again and again and again.