This is particularly so with newborns. The newborn offers us nothing to love but their presence. The infant cannot tell a joke or dance a jig; the newborn cannot offer us advice or listen to our problems; in fact, the newborn will not even return our smile. The newborn can breathe, eat, cry, and generate volumes of dirty diapers. And yet we love that newborn. We love that newborn for no reason whatsoever. It is a love without proof or explanation or profit. It is love for love’s sake, and in that moment we hold the newborn in our arms, we understand, if only for that moment, how this is actually enough.
In an ideal world, in a Garden of Eden world, our relationship to our children, and our friends, and strangers, and ourselves would go unchanged. In an ideal world we would all continue to love ourselves and everyone around us simply for love’s sake. But by and by we all start doing stuff. We start walking and talking and making choices and expressing preferences. All the things we do create new conditions and we are not always happy with those conditions. Sometimes we don’t like the conditions we’ve created, and often we don’t like the conditions that other people have created. What to do, what to do? Sometimes the best answer seems to be to withhold love for the offending creator, even and particularly if we ourselves are that offender. That’ll teach us.
This is why the children we say are on the autism spectrum are such great teachers. Most of these children do not, cannot, or maybe will not behave the way we believe a person should behave. They do things they shouldn’t – like hum and flap – or they don’t do things they should – like answer to their names. Fortunately, most of these children begin misbehaving, so to speak, at such a young age that it is hard for us, at least as parents, to throw them under the bus of withheld love. But what to do? By the time we are old enough to have children we have slowly and consistently trained ourselves to believe that love, for some reason, must be earned.
The answer, of course, is obvious but not so easy. It is not so easy to undo the belief that love must be earned, that it is in fact quite conditional. “I won’t be treated this way!” we say. Or, “Show me you love me!” Such thoughts feel like a declaration of independence. They are quite the opposite. To love someone, whether that someone is your child on the autism spectrum or not on the autism spectrum, whether that someone is your lover or your neighbor, whether that someone is a stranger or yourself, means to see past the meaningless pantomime of behavior.
Often, I confess, I do not see past this pantomime. I can become hypnotized into believing someone is an enemy by his behavior. But every time I have succeeded in seeing past the veil of behavior I have beheld the same presence I perceived in a newborn’s still, unsmiling, unfrowning face. That perception is my only freedom. It is the way out of Hell, an unreal world where every moment I am required to re-grow a garden that is already thriving around me.