Brother’s Keeper

*Dylan’s mom stood in the doorway of the shiva house, looking out on a grey, stormy day, the weather most likely in precise alignment with the torment inside her. For a moment, I didn’t realize it was she. We hadn’t seen each other for about fifteen years. Her hair was different then, shorter, curlier. We met at an intensive therapeutic program for our then-preschool-age sons. I asked where the family was taking visitors.

 “I’m the mom.” ‘It’s me.” She said pointing to herself.  

 

Last week, Dylan, age twenty and a college junior, made the tragically irreparable decision to take his life. No words adequately express the level of devastation and sorrow his family, friends and community are going through.

In many ways, he was a success story. Dylan, despite his Aspergers** diagnosis, (an autistic spectrum disorder seriously impacting social skills) soared in his mainstream classes, worked as a camp counselor, went snowboarding and rock climbing. He also fearlessly tried his hand at skydiving. He was fiercely loved by his parents and three brothers who never hesitated over the years to provide the help he needed.

Dylan may have mastered some significant aspects of his difficulties like academia and driving a car. However, he was all too aware of the serious social challenges preventing him from grasping the last rung on the ladder of achievements–the possibility of being accepted, to not be different and be like everyone else. That coveted lifeline promised to pull him up, making him level with the rest of the world. But Dylan found it elusive. The rung would always be just a bit out of his reach. He was so close.

In his eulogy, his dad expressed sadness that most people focused on his Aspergers rather than his good heart.

Dylan continuously strove to understand social nuance and the mechanics of appropriate conversation. He eagerly tried to learn how to do better. Dylan hoped for friends of his own who would genuinely want to include and appreciate him; to call him because they wanted to catch a movie—not because they were using him to get a ride. He wanted to know what having a girlfriend was like. He yearned for romance and intimacy.

His heart was worn down over time, his dad’s words continued. Dylan worked hard for peer inclusion but got too little in return.

The family, however, is determined not to allow their son’s death to be in vain. They challenge others to include the person who is alone on a Saturday night or the one sitting by him or herself in the cafeteria or social gathering.–‘the one who may lower your social status.’

To say kindness is difficult is counterintuitive. But kindness should not be confused with weakness. In fact insensitivity, selfishness and cruelty is the easy out, impulsively calling forth our most base reaction. Self-control, empathy and compassion are strengths to be nurtured.

It takes soulful effort to fight through personal discomfort and reach out. Brush off social stigma and rediscover common decency. Say hi. Smile—elemental respect everyone deserves. It is so simple. Dignity is a most fundamental right and human need. Humiliation and hurt are powerful emotions that can lead to despair.

Dylan’s family wants people to know that we can set the example. His brothers always included him with their friends and everyone was all the richer for it.

Lack of systemic supports coupled with status-conscious youth set a most tragic stage for Dylan’s final act. The first tragedy was society’s failure to respond.

If that rung was half an inch away, it was a million miles. Let us not dismiss the ability we have to help close that gap for others.

May his memory be a blessing.

X, S

From National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

*Name changed

**Adults with Asperger’s have suicidal thoughts at about ten times the rate of the general population: 17% to 66%

Risings

 (I’m plagued by everything from tragedies in the news to the more every-day life-stresses.  I’ve written the following as an expression of  frustration and hope)

What’s plaguing you?

You know, those crumbs stuck in the recesses of your mind sitting there, slowly rotting,  threatening to infect your better self.

Pharoah, the wicked King of Egypt, just doesn’t get it. It takes no less than ten seriously nasty plagues before finally grasping the concept of change (and even then he was quick to fall back on his old ways).

Pharoah’s actions are the epitome of  Einstein’s well-known definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  His hardened heart not only harmed others but his loved ones as well.

Consider how often we are guilty of hardening our own hearts because we hurt, are insecure, angry, jaded, fearful and weary. The red flag waves.

We too must learn the same lesson repeatedly before it sinks in. Are we listening to what our lives tell us again and again? Do we heed the signs hidden or glaring? Do we exercise our empathic muscle when we interact with others?

Many times, mental cobwebs cloud those messages and hinder our objectivity. The status-quo may obscure the path to any possible change. One fundamental reason we flounder and stumble: we lack the skills to make even a small step toward redirection. We simply don’t know how. We’re stuck.

According to the Passover story, the enslaved make a break for it and grab the one opportunity they have for freedom. Squandering it could cost them their lives. The yeast may not rise but they themselves would–to the challenge presented.

Luckily, we don’t have to move as fast.  However, the decision to rid ourselves of crumbs, literal or metaphorical, should be made. The journey may be never-ending.  We are a work in progress.

 

 

Out With the Old, In With the You

I’m not the biggest fan of suburban life but perks like no-sweat parking and more living space are undeniable.  The yard sale too, the quintessential suburban event, is another.  I brake for them–and any thrift-type store–in my line of vision.

Proving evolution hasn’t killed the thrill of the hunt,  I’ve put to good use dozens of finds like brand-new, never-opened office supplies or the adorable end table repurposed to hold bathroom towels.  Discovering secondhand items I wouldn’t have considered purchasing retail generates creative opportunities I wouldn’t have ever taken.

When I first began thrifting years ago, the concept was fraught with stigma (socially acceptable terms were ‘antique’ or ‘vintage’).  Now not so much.  With our growing sensitivity toward recycling, thinking “green,”  being crafty and a desire to pare down, secondhand stores have become trendy.

But still: Why pick through someone’s past?  Glimpsing briefly into others’ lives I witness a condensed timeline.  What did they hold dear?  Which milestones defined their lives?  Why do they want to dispose of these markers?  Are they ready?

Young families change homes and forge ahead to the future while others clean out lifetimes–theirs or those of loved ones. That reality may be the most difficult. We affix our projections and sentiments to inanimate objects. They are tangible reminders of our past, proof of its existence.  To watch a buyer walk away with a child’s prom dress, crib or a well-loved lounge chair is, no doubt, an exercise in letting go.

Unburdening sets in motion a coming to terms with the end of a time we may have treasured or a goal we must admit we won’t reach.  Several years ago, after holding onto them long after any further realistic possibility, I gave away boxes of baby clothes my kids had worn, finally accepting  I would not, once more, be the mother of a newborn.

Then again, tossing isn’t necessarily negative.  Emotional freedom can perhaps be gained from items discarded.  Though the stuff our dreams were once attached to may get the heave-ho, different owners can breathe new life into things no longer of use to us.

Castoff rites are helpful psychological prompts defining a ‘before’ and ‘after.’   The Jewish New Year ritual Tashlich (pronounced TASH-leekh), practiced by some, symbolizes a casting off of our previous year’s misdeeds and offenses by tossing pieces of bread into a body of water.  The release grants us space to reboot, release our regrets, take vows toward personal improvement, forgive others and–what could be most challenging– ourselves.

Outer skin can be easily shed. What we hold in our hearts and minds is not.  Changes, if they happen at all, are slow. The real work is within. Our hopes are to start fresh and make room for new experiences–not new stuff.

Accoutrements are our armor.  Stripping ourselves of our airs and attitudes leaves only who you are at the core.  You were there all along.

X, S

 

 

And While You’re At It, Check Everything

 

Earlier this month, Tal Fortgang, a Princeton freshman, wrote an essay in reaction to often hearing his professors (and some fellow students) tell him to “check his privilege,”  a comment frequently used to tell someone that their presumed bias is showing (http://tinyurl.com/oumqr7q).  

The professors have a point.  So does Fortgang.  Unfortunately, they are talking at cross purposes, never acknowledging the other’s concern.  Professors rightly attempt to raise students’ consciousness by pointing out how fortunate circumstances can affect one’s perspective.  But I think professors are also obligated to keep open the lines of communication on campus and in the classroom.

“Check your privilege,” in essence, constructs a wall that can ironically  prevent us from working toward further understanding.  Opinions or points of discussion–however erroneous they may be–would rarely, if ever, be raised or even valued because past personal history could never be changed.

Isn’t enlightenment a main goal of higher education–an amalgam of ideas, where no one will be shamed into silence for who or what they are?  Once the phrase is uttered, where does the classroom discussion lead?  Is it a launching point for valuable insight and learning?  Or could students become intimidated, shrinking away from opportunities for understanding others?

More fundamentally, we need to ask:  If we all–students and professors included–have our own affected outlook, are we ever able to understand anyone who’s not like us? Why would we try if we’d be knocked down before the conversation has a chance to start? Are institutions of higher learning still able to provide critical thinking skills?

The larger point here is that anything can cloud a person’s perspective. Not just privilege.  Our world view will always be filtered through the prism of our own background and experience.

We all have a bias of some kind to check.   What’s yours?

X, S

 

 

Shaming Shame

He could not have been more than 3 years old.   The little guy, occupied with toys displayed on a pharmacy shelf, was sitting alone on the floor at the front of the store. I noticed him as I weaved my cart in and out of the aisles searching for the items I came for.  My eyes swept the immediate area.  There was no adult in sight.  After several minutes, I circled back. He was still on his own, unaccounted for.  My concern grew.

“Where’s your mommy?” “Do you have a grown up with you?” I asked. The boy looked up at me, sweet-faced and quizzical.  I wasn’t getting anywhere.  If his safety was compromised in any way, I couldn’t ignore it.

I alerted the cashier and he, in turn, called the manager.  At this point, another customer, a woman in business attire from a nearby office, overheard my conversation with the cashier and also became concerned.

But here is where it gets dicey.  The boy’s mother comes rushing back from wherever she was in the store.  She looked utterly harried.  My heart immediately went out to her.  Just as I was about to let her know of my relief, Biz-Lady begins lacing into the mother, firing a stinging string of epithets: Leaving your child alone is unacceptable!  You are so disgusting!  You shouldn’t have children!

I was dumbstruck.  It’s one thing to express a brief concern to a stranger but quite another to appoint oneself a brutal tongue-lasher.  What type of response did the screamer think she was going to get from the mom? Sadly, that’s the point.  She put herself first, never considering the mother in any way or the effect of  verbally attacking her in front of her young child.  She was more interested in shaming and embarrassing the mother.  The woman’s goal,  it seemed, was to feel good about herself.

Let me be clear: Children must not be left unsupervised under any circumstances.  I don’t know why this mother didn’t keep better tabs on her child.  Lapse in judgment perhaps-we’ve all had those. She was lucky all ended well.  Still, I think the stranger’s reaction was dreadful.  She knew nothing about the mom.  If she felt she needed to react, there were more appropriate ways to do so.

I was desperate to defuse the situation but only had a split second to figure things out.  I wanted to come to the mom’s defense but I feared further escalation of a situation that had no real resolution. Chastising the woman for her vitriol wasn’t going to help.  I hoped to find a way to reach out to the mother and perhaps find a way to soften the impact but never had the chance.  Mercifully for them, mother and child quickly left the scene.

This incident may be an extreme example of a subtler problem but once again raises a question I’ve long been struggling with. Is basic decency between otherwise civil people on the decline? Is empathy? Research studies from 2010 have indeed found, among college students, declining empathy levels for over 30 years while self-centered behavior has risen. http://tinyurl.com/kobwsre 

When did character traits past generations took for granted—courtesy, decency and respect–become too high an expectation?  Is even a friendly acknowledgement between acquaintances too lofty a goal?

Dr. Brené Brown is also bothered by the growing lack of heart and simple kindness. The research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work has spent years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. She discusses her findings further in her 2012 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

According to Brown, shame’s power is in making us “feel trapped, powerless and isolated.”  Its danger, she says, is its ability to make us feel alone, different and outside our social circles.   Empathy, however, according to Brown, is shame’s antidote.

Whether or not Bible is your thing or the upcoming holiday of Passover is one you observe, it is hard to ignore lessons of empathy in one of the oldest stories of freedom. For instance, Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter as a privileged child, deeply felt slaves’ suffering. He went outside his comfort zone and imagined what it would be like to be someone else.  As a result, he was not only able to physically free the oppressed but show that they deserved lives of worth.

In another example, tradition requires readers of the story to see themselves as having been freed from slavery.   Again, vicarious experience requires identifying with the other.

Lastly, tradition again makes certain we recognize enemies’ suffering by spilling wine, symbolizing that the joy of freedom is incomplete, having come at the cost of others’ lives.  Everyone’s emotions are asked to be understood.

Reminders for essential decency surround us. We don’t always take note. I hope we can spot the signs more easily and catch ourselves before we take more than we give.

X, S

 

Link to “Ready For Takeoff”

A huge thank you to GrownandFlown.com for publishing my essay, “Ready For Takeoff?”.  The piece will also serve as this week’s newest blog entry.  (http://grownandflown.com/ready-takeoff-facing-question-autism).

 

The last 6 weeks have been an interesting experiment. When I set up my blog I had no idea what would happen.  Thank you all for the wonderful support.  Your ‘Likes’, shares, follows and words of encouragement have put a smile on my face.

I always liked to write and did so professionally for a human rights organization in the ‘80s but only recently did I consider personal writing. Blogging intrigued me. But did I have enough to say? I liked the thought of it but my negative self-talk–which I’m really good at—always won out. Still, the prospect kept drawing me back in, beckoning seductively, “You know you want to.”

I did want to.

Writing is my meditation like dancing is my prayer. Both are important expressions of creativity for me. Writing, however, allows me to share parts of myself I cannot elsewhere (unless we meet in person).  Connecting with others is my oxygen, my energy.  Blogging is my social medium of choice.

Banter between people on social media can be enjoyable. We’ve also seen communities powerfully pull together in time of need but superficial ‘friending’, either online or off, doesn’t do it for me (Full disclosure: I use several popular social media.) Writing, however, though it starts out as an isolating activity can link people together, to reveal depth and to welcome.

Thinking up weekly entry ideas has been a challenge but part of the fun.  Thanks for  reading.

X, S