This past week I was taking my son (see “Rant on Can’t” – post before last) to his bus stop as I do every weekday morning so he could catch the bus to work. The weather report was on the radio and the prediction for one day this past week was for it to be 70 degrees. My son turned to me and said, “70 degrees is good, right?” Now, had I made some comment of joy prior to him saying that? Probably. I am in Syracuse as I write this morning and it is 34 degrees so I am well sick of the cold by this late in April. I was certainly happy to hear “70 degrees.” But what does it matter? He heard the weather report; he may have heard me comment; and he added the two together to come up with the conclusion that 70 degrees is a measure of good weather. And then he checked it with me to confirm. All that is what thinking consists of, doesn’t it?
I thought of his teacher and the teacher’s life-deadening perspective on “limits.” And it reminded me of why the phrase “developmentally delayed” is so much more accurate than the word “retarded.” My son’s experience of learning has always been – and still is to a lesser degree – screened first by his determination to not feel the laser sharp pain and humiliation of being called “stupid,” or worse, feeling stupid. I doubt that he ever felt “stupid” on his own anymore than I feel “stupid” because I can’t do brain surgery. No, the feeling of stupid came because he had internalized what the culture surrounding him had announced as true. And then he used (for evidence that they were right) the irrelevant but true facts of the things that he saw he could not do, or did not know how to do. And then – my favorite theme apparently – he blamed himself for being “retarded.” [in recognition of the pain that that word has inflicted upon him over his life, it is a word that is absolutely forbidden in my house, by the way. We never let it pass without comment.]
It is a very short jump then – and a sign of emotional health – that he refused and refuses to place himself in any circumstance where he might feel stupid. What has astonished me for over twenty years now is that he apparently unconsciously figures out in advance what those circumstances would be and avoids them with a ten foot pole. Brilliant, no?
For him then to ask me if 70 degrees is a good thing….no, he didn’t ask that. For him to confirm his hypothesis that 70 degrees is a good thing reveals how internally strong he has become in accepting himself as whole. That affirmation of himself – which is what it is – is not only what thinking always leads to, it is what loving oneself is all about. And that is what spiritual freedom is. With it, the world then opens itself to us – or more accurately, we become open ourselves to the world, no longer worried about defending ourselves from it. And what better definition of psychological freedom?
Every so often, I remember learning as a kid that God has a very special connection and relationship with those whom we define as handicapped. He gives them less in order to witness for the rest of us what we really need in this life. But it’s a measure of God’s trust in them, in their ability to take it that they have been so chosen. I’m sure I am not remembering it right – but the point is there: at best, nobody is better than anybody else. And at worst (for us): “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
The real handicaps come into existence when we fall for the blame for being ourselves that are thrust upon us by others. For African-Americans in our culture, James Brown got to the heart of it a generation ago (two generations?) with his song “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Followed shortly thereafter with Jesse Jackson and the phrase he used over and over and over: “I Am – Somebody.”
Some years ago – and, if I have written this before, apparently the price of reading a blog over time is dealing with repetition from the writer – there was a very discrete moment in time, when I realized that this son of mine would be okay when I was no longer alive. Something happened on one of his jobs and one of his co-workers said something about him being retarded. My son went up to him – he told me – and asked him what made him think that he was “so much better than I am.” I don’t know if that really happened. But my relief came from knowing that my son knew that’s the truth of it. You don’t let the attacks inside you: you respond to them straight out. He knew when to respond, and how to respond, to attacks on his “self.”
Would that the rest of our society was that far along…….
Great post, Jack. I hope you know how much I learn from and count on your blog in terms of my own parenting. Every time I read you, I learn something important about my own relationship with my son.