Being Fully Human, Compassion, disability, hope, marginalized, mental illness, neurodiversity, normalcy, perspective, Relationship, stigma, worthiness

Neurodiversity

NeurodiversityIf you don’t know something that you want to know, what do you do? If you are conducting research on something, where do you look? Do you make a B-line for the library? Do you grab the appropriate letter from the set of encyclopedias? Or do you turn on your computer and do a Google search?

Google has become a whole new way of life. We now have all the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips. The most powerful research tool ever to be constructed by human hands, the most impressive feat of human ingenuity and collective wisdom. And it shall be called… “google?”

What the heck is a google? Well, Google got its name from a 9-year-old nephew of a mathematician who was asked to invent a name for a number with 100 zeroes. He came up with a googol. How do I know that? That’s right, I Googled it!

Names are important. It turns out that when you blindfold people, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to change my name. Having been raised in home in which my relationship with my father was strained at best and experiencing unhealthy marriages that did not end well, I had accumulated a long string of names. Then in the spring of 2010 I petitioned the court and dropped all of the extra baggage. Lee had been my middle name. And now, for the first time, I felt the congruence of my name actually proclaiming who I knew myself in my limited ego existence to be. Names are carry a lot of emotional weight and they are critical for communication.  

 My son Alex came home all excited one day from school. He was 5 or 6 six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

Two weeks ago I shared with you news about Alex that is not as cute and funny. He, like nearly 1 in every 5 Americans is struggling with mental illness. A number of you have shared with me since that announcement your own struggle or a family member’s struggle or a friend’s struggle with mental illness. That’s the politically correct name – mental illness. And it’s better than many of the common pejorative names we toss around haphazardly like psycho, schizo and freak. But today I want to introduce what might be a new name in your vocabulary: Neurodiversity.

The Need for Names

I first heard the name on NPR about a month ago so I investigated it to learn more. How did I do that? Yes, I Googled it! I Googled Neurodiversity and this is what I learned. Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize mental illness and to recognize that brains are every bit as diverse as any other aspect of life. As we wrap up a month of talking about Diversity, I think it is more than appropriate to recognize that the mentally ill remain squarely in society’s camp of the marginalized and misunderstood.

We talked a couple of months ago about words. Our words are basically placeholders for ideas and concepts. The names are a special kind of word because they contain a whole collection of ideas and concepts.  

Names lead us to making assumptions about people – some of which are clearly true and some of which are undoubtedly false. And while we know assumptions often get us in trouble, we also need them if we want to get past the first five minutes of our day without being paralyzed by analysis. Our labels help us to make quick decisions about how we should respond or behave in any particular situation or place. But we also use our labels to maintain the status quo so that we aren’t challenged to think beyond what we have already observed.

Names become a tool for dehumanizing people when we don’t want to put forth the effort of understanding them. If they are *that* then I know enough about them to know I don’t want to really know anything about them. Why would I let a silly thing like facts get in the way of altering my world view?  

I had a psychology professor who used the example of “woman driver.” You’re driving along and somebody in another car does something stupid. You look. If they are a woman, you say to yourself “woman driver.” If they are a man, you say to yourself “hmph, drives just like a woman.”

Know what I’ve noticed the last couple of years? Seems like whenever someone commits an act of horrible violence, the media immediately ask if they are schizophrenic. If they aren’t, then they acted like a schizophrenic – despite the fact that violence is not even a symptom of schizophrenia. Think John Nash. Think Jack Kerouac.  

Which brings me back to the name neurodiversity as opposed to mental illness. I like it this name because it suggests that people are not diseased or broken – they are different. Thomas Armstrong, the man who I heard on NPR, argues that we don’t say that a cala lilly has petal deficit disorder, we value it for its own intrinsic worth. Similarly, we need to approach mental illness and developmental disabilities from an entirely different perspective that challenges us to see the intrinsic worth of every human being and every human brain.

What is Normal? 

Neurodiversity proponents say that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage because they allowed a few people to think outside of the box. When no one else could come up with an answer, it may have been these creative thinkers that pointed to another way. This theory, which emerged about a decade ago, challenges us to celebrate the differences between our brains and moves us away from our almost instinctive focus on problems and deficits.

When we look at the whole make up of humanity, we see a range of different thinking that’s made our progress in science and the creative arts possible.  Picture a bell curve of humanity. To neurodiversity proponents, people who are disabled are not sick or broken, they are merely at the edges of the bell curve.

This approach strikes at the heart of the medical model that focuses on defects and deficits. Neurodiversity doesn’t ignore the struggles many people have to live functional lives, but it says we need to give at least equal attention to the assets, advantages and abilities of people who are simply wired differently.

The name “neurodiverse” tears down the false wall of separation that divides the “normal” from the not “normal” and calls into question the idea of normalcy itself. It allows us to see different ways of thinking and processing the world as natural variations instead of seeing people as bad, broken or in need of repair. To proponents of neurodiversity, the idea of a “cure” can actually feel like an attack on their being. This is particularly true in the autistic community where advocates believe autism is part of who they naturally are and who reject the idea that there is some other hidden self within. One autistic man writes that trying to cure him of autism is as detestable an effort as trying to cure someone of being gay.

A Society that Makes Accommodations

When I worked at Kandu I helped people with barriers to employment find competitive employment. Kandu and similar organizations are not in the business of fixing people or changing them into something else. They are in the business of identifying strengths and finding ways people can use those strengths to succeed in society. They are also in the business of identifying accommodations that society needs to make to help them achieve that success. 

Now none of this is to romanticize the functional limitations of people on the edges of the Bell curve. I don’t propose stopping treatment or research in the field. But I am suggesting we stop looking at people as diagnoses that need to be fixed and start looking at how as a culture we can make accommodations so that everyone can survive and even find a place to thrive without having to be made into some imagined social ideal of normal.

When we name people as defective, disordered and ill, we build a wall that implicitly states that the rest of us are normal or whole, ignoring the fact that we are all flawed and imperfect. We make people into “them” and “other” in a way that might sound sympathetic and compassionate, but that also reinforces judgment and fear.

We ignore the reality that we all struggle with deficiencies and we all have aspects of our lives that we are working to improve or overcome.   

The real value of the neurodiversity movement may be in reminding us that we all experience joy and sorrow, pain and hardship, challenges and opportunities and that a humanizing society is one in which we are all given the chance to make the best of what we have been dealt.

 Renaming mental illness as Neurodiversity is a start. A change of name and our entire outlook and set of assumptions can change – because it forces us to change our perspective. A change of name can open us up to see and explore other truths that are out there just waiting to be discovered – and waiting to be shared. I mentioned two weeks ago that we are not traveling alone. We are on a journey together, learning how to live together in all of our wonderful diversity – including neurodiversity.  We each have so much to learn and so much more we can teach.   

These days we also have the resources of the entire world at our disposal. That wasn’t always the case. I heard a story just the other day that I’d like to use to close on chuckle. Two people were sitting on a couch together sharing a snack in the days before Google was invented. One said, “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replied, “That’s a damn shame.”                                                 

Namaste

 

 

 

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Being Fully Human, boundaries, Buddha, change, Compassion, Jesus, love, Relationship, Respect, self help, Spiritual

My Enemy, My Self

the enemy withinThe preacher had just delivered a highly emotional 30-minute sermon on the topic of forgiveness. When he finished he asked how many people were ready to forgive their enemies. About half of the hands went up. Not enough. So he preached for another 15 minutes then asked again how many people were ready to forgive all their enemies. A few more hands went up. Not enough. So he preached on for another 20 minutes. By now people were getting awfully restless and it was getting to be lunchtime so when he asked how many people were willing to forgive their enemies every hand in the place went up – except one. It was old widow Miller in the back of the church. So the pastor asked her to stand up. “Mrs. Miller,” he asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered, “I don’t have any.” Well now, the preacher was might impressed so he asked her to come to the front of the church. “How old are you Mrs. Miller?” he asked. “I am 91,” she answered. “Well now, Mrs. Miller, can you tell the congregation how it is that you have lived to be 91 years old and don’t have a single enemy?” “Yes,” she replied, “I outlived all of them.”  

How about you? Any enemies still living? And when I say “enemies” I’m not implying that there are people you truly want to see harmed or even dead – although if there are those people in your life they certainly qualify. But I’m also talking about those people who make your life more difficult by being in it, the people who are hard to be around, who drive you crazy. I’m also talking about those people in your life who seem to have it out for you. And on a less personal note, I also want to include people and whole groups of people who seem intent on destroying your environment, attacking your life style, or ruining your country – from within or from without. And if you’re still just too nice a person to be willing to think of anybody as an “enemy” then consider the fact that somebody somewhere thinks you are an enemy of theirs.

We are not perfect and we do not live in a perfect world. Hence we join all of humanity in recognizing that people have been making each other miserable for thousands of years. We all drive somebody crazy – even if we have no idea we’re doing it. Of course, we don’t see it that way. We think our behavior is normal or justified or somebody else’s fault. 

Frankly, it’s a lot easier to focus on someone else’s actions than our own. Because to admit how our behavior affects others is to identify in our self the very things we condemn in others. In fact it is precisely that which annoys us in other people that really bothers us the most about our self. That’s why it stands out so much to us in the people we don’t like – we’ve attempted to disown that part of us so now we see it reflected in the people who drive us crazy. Dr. Mark Rosen wrote the book Thank You for Being Such a Pain.” In it he writes, “To understand our encounters with difficult people, we eventually need to accept the fact that we are them.” 

It’s also possible that difficult people don’t just show up randomly in our lives but that we find them when we need to grow and develop. Our adversaries may be some of our best teachers, showing up at just the right time with the characteristics that match exactly the places within us that need learning and healing. At least some of our enemies just might offer a spiritual “kick in the butt.”  

So if we’re essentially stuck with enemies and difficult people, how are we supposed to do deal with them? According to both Buddha and Jesus we’re supposed to love them. 

Love Your Enemy, Avoid the Trap

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” It is true. Love is transformational. There are all kinds of stories and movies about difficult people being redeemed by the power of love. And some of us love the idea that OUR love especially has the power to bring about THAT kind of change. Wow – we could be so special, so important. But when we decide someone else’s transformation is our responsibility, we have fallen into a trap. 

There are three major problems here. First of all, we can get really messed up thinking that love means allowing ourselves to be mistreated and abused. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect and we will never help anyone be a better or happier person by allowing our own safety or emotional well-being to be compromised. Next, you’re setting yourself up to be more hurt in the long run. Because to base our well-being on someone else’s behavior gives our enemies incredible power over us. Finally, it’s just not a very realistic goal. We have a hard enough time making ourselves be the people we want to be, let alone accomplishing that feat with someone else! In short, if your primary strategy for dealing with a difficult person in your life is getting them to change, I’d suggest that you give it up right now because odds are it will never work. 

The complicating factor in the teaching of love is that while we are told to love our enemies, we aren’t given very specific instruction on how to do it. I mean it’s relatively easy to “say” we love our enemies and on a spiritual level I imagine most of us strive to embrace all of humankind as our brothers and sisters – but we can’t manufacture feelings of love just because we’re told it’s the right thing to do and we can’t stop our emotional reactions just because we want to. Love is not a technique. It is more a state of being, cultivated over time and sustained through constant effort. We all seek to find a place in our heart to love someone in a healthy way regardless of what they do. 

But in the meantime, when someone is causing us pain, love is usually not our first impulse. Ignoring them, getting even or cutting them out of our life may come to mind as possible options. But none of them are particularly loving. So if we can’t get rid of them and we can’t change them, who can we change? It turns out the one and only person we really have any hope of changing is our self. Not that this is an easy task either – but it is the one in which we actually have direct control. 

What Can We Change?

So what can we change about ourselves? Our reactions are a good place to start. Thinking about how to react instead of simply reacting is something we will have lots of opportunities to practice. I used to endure horrible tirades by my ex-husband on the telephone. I was an anxious nervous wreck every time he called. Until I began trying to stop my automatic reaction and remain calm and detached. It took a long time to learn to stop that natural impulse, but on the way I got to the point where when the phone rang I thought “oh good – another chance to practice being non-reactive.” The difficult people in our life usually give us more than one shot at learning new responses and behaviors so we can be grateful for the opportunity they provide to practice!  

Another change we might aspire to is not just to control our reactions, but to work with our emotions as well. But again, that’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Even if we can get our reactions under control, we may still experience incredible feelings of frustration, anger and hurt. The first real task for us then is to begin to get in touch with those feelings. What is the precise emotion being stirred up within us? If we can experience our feelings for what they are and not try to deny them we have already gained a tool for responding more appropriately to our real nemesis.  Meditation is a great practice to help us cultivate patience and inner peace so that we can begin thinking about how we will respond to others and what feelings we will allow others to pull up in us. Eventually we may even find ourselves able to let go of the negative emotions even as they arise.  

Perhaps the most important thing for us to change is our perspective. This is huge because it means being able to see through another person’s eyes – to genuinely walk a mile or two in their shoes. 

It sounds pretty simple, but it can really have profound and powerful results. I’ll give you an example pulled from my interactions with my ex. In one of our rounds I had become extremely frustrated by the way in which he was pushing our son Jackson in karate. I was helping Jackson out by not making him participate in karate during the weekends that he was home with me. So I start by thinking about what a crummy father I think he’s being. Then I start a dialogue with him in my mind. When he replies to my accusations, I realize that our son doesn’t talk to him about how pressured he feels. So I can hear my ex responding by talking about the ways in which he believes he is supporting his son and his confusion that I am not. From HIS perspective that makes perfect sense. From his vantage point I’m the one that looks like I’m not supporting our son – no wonder he is so frustrated with me!

Another way to shift our perspective is to get to know whom it is we are struggling with. You might accomplish this by actually talking to someone over lunch. Or you might need to do a little more investigative work. I had a broken relationship with my father. I moved out of the house when I graduated and quickly cut him out of my life. In later years as an adult I came to the point where I knew I needed to do my self work. How do we do that? By dealing with the issues from our family of origin. I decided I needed to better understand who this man was that I knew as my father. So I started calling and meeting with his siblings, his mother, others who could help me fill in the spaces in the puzzle beyond my limited interactions with him. 

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a person who caused a lot of pain in a lot of people’s lives – and everyone knew it. I wondered if the priest would tell us how wonderful this man was while everyone suppressed sarcastic rejoinders. But Father Jim skipped the meaningless platitudes and instead said simply, “Not one of us can know all of the pain and hardship this man experienced in his life.” 

Suffering and Ignorance

Eventually, if we are sincere in our attempts to understand others, we will be led to feel compassion for the suffering and ignorance that is at the root of all difficult behavior. Not only that, but we will realize that our own suffering and ignorance add to the problem. That the friend and the foe both reside within our own self. In fact, we will come ultimately to realize that there really is no difference between me and you, that the idea of us and them is purely a human construct and an artificial barrier to healing and wholeness. 

To take that to its extreme, while on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”

We are a people who value the dignity and worth of every human being. We use the word “Namaste” a lot. That means that we see the Light, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Good and the Pure in each other and in everyone. Prayer and meditation are much easier spiritual pursuits than seeing the Light in those we label difficult and wrong and enemy. But one of the marks of spiritual growth is the extent to which it develops in us the attributes of tolerance, self-control, kindness, compassion, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and the desire to serve. Perhaps in the end we aren’t told to love our enemies because our love will transform them. Perhaps we are told to love because in doing so, we are the ones who are transformed. 

 
Namaste
 
Community Conversation:
What is your strategy for dealing with difficult people?
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