Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Those dedicated few who still check in on my blog from time to time may recall that I've been working with my older, autistic son Patrick using a program known as RDI.

I don't know if I've mentioned on here that I now work with a consultant out of Houston for help and guidance with this program.  Her name is Melanie.  She is amazingly good at what she does.  It is really neat to see Patrick progress in these subtle but complex ways using this program.

But what has gotten me thinking lately has been how this work has challenged me.  Let me explain.

One of the entirely unreasonable requests that Melanie made of me not so long ago was to start sending in more videos.  Not just one or two every couple of weeks, but more like 2-3 each week.  I, of course, eagerly agreed and mentioned the multiplicity of ways that I could see this benefiting Patrick.

And since then...I have found myself dragging my feet on it.  Well, I'm not entirely sure that's it, to be honest.  It's probably some combination of the fact that I'm dragging my feet and, well, it's been hard for me to find the time to make more videos what with all the other stuff I've got going on right now.  With the work.  And the housework.  And the evaluation write-ups.  And the occasional need to mow the yard.  And the single-parenting.  And the working every other Saturday.

But at least in part it's dragging my feet.  And what I'm learning about myself is that I struggle to feel OK with making a video unless several things are in place.  Like that I've cleaned up that particular corner of the house to a reasonable degree.  And that I've thought through what I'm going to do.  And that I feel some reasonable degree of success.

Or, put differently, I definitely don't want to seem like a slob, like an incompetent, like a failure.

And so, I sometimes fail to do this work (work that I want to do) because I fear to show my failures.  Which is utter nonsense, of course.  I'm quite sure that the wise and kind Melanie learns much more about me and Patrick from the times when we fail, though I know she also cheers us for our successes.  I know that failing, openly, honestly, genuinely, is what allows me to learn, to grow, to help Patrick and to become a better father to him.

So this is my goal right now: to try, to fail gloriously, and to grow.  And, I think, to become more comfortable with failures large and small.

RDI attempts to teach those with autism that failures and imperfections are so common and unavoidable that they can't really be a big deal.

I hope to live that.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Being divorced gives you a fair amount of free time.  Time that one could spend in reflection, I suppose.  Or exercising.  Or donating to charity.  Or, in my case, playing mindless, soul numbing video games.

OK, maybe "soul numbing" is taking it a bit far.  Perhaps it would be more accurate to observe that there's little I would take from such experiences and say at the end of my life "damn, I'm really glad I spent time playing THAT game!  I really learned something."

With the notable exception of a concept from the latest game I've played:  Words of Power.

Now, in the game, learning such words allows you to do all manner of things, mostly in combat.  You can push stuff around, breathe fire at them, run at impossible speeds, turn invisible.  The notion is that once you learn the true name, the true essence of something, it is yours to use in some type of magical way.

Now life would be AWESOME if it worked like that, though I would have to be much more careful about the words I taught my children (let's just say disciplinary situations would become much more fraught with peril).  But of course, that isn't the way of things.

But I am in a profession that believes in the power of words.  And I am starting to find that there are indeed "words of power" in a sense.  But first you have to understand the nature of the problem deeply enough.  My word right now is "trust."

I should take a step back here.  If you read my last post, you may recall that an autism consultant has been giving me some feedback about ways to work with my son, Patrick.  Among that advice was the recommendation to reduce his sense of demand -- in large part so as to create a relationship he chose to participate in, a relationship where he could develop trust. 

So this idea of trust has been in my mind a lot lately.  I've been thinking about the clients I work with, and the various ways in which they struggle to trust...whether it's trusting in themselves, trusting in their partners, trusting in therapy.  I've thought a lot about how I want Patrick to feel trust in me, to have an instinctive sense of our interactions as safe, to know that I won't let him fail because I'll be there to support him when he needs it.

And then one morning, I was reflecting on myself.  I was thinking about that side of me that somehow questions whether people want me around, that side of myself that feels a pressing need to do things for people in order to be considered good enough, the side of myself that (despite these efforts) never feels like it can quite get there.

And it hit me.  The missing piece here was...trust.  Trusting in others.  Trusting in myself.  Trusting rather than having to prove myself.  Trusting rather than constantly striving.  So I took a few minutes and sat with that anxiety, picturing it as a ball of energy, holding it and accepting it, summoning whatever kindness and compassion I could and directing it there.

And, frankly, it took a few minutes before it began to relax, to melt away.  And once it did so, I became aware of this almost palpable sense of relief, of opening up, of just letting life happen rather than trying to make it go one way or another.  I experienced trust.

So I'm not sure if "trust" as a concept is what really changed things.  Maybe the true power came in having that experience of holding that feeling, experiencing it relax, of experiencing trust.  But still, the word "trust" has come to mean something different than it did before.  It's a reminder of how I hope to approach things differently, a habit of mind that I hope to cultivate.

It's my word of power.

Much love and joy to you all, my friends.

Monday, November 14, 2011


So recently we had an RDI autism consultant fly up to see us from Houston. It was an eye-opening experience in a number of ways. But I think what struck me the most was what she had to say about Patrick and demands.

When she brought the issue up, I wasn't sure at first quite exactly what she meant. So when I asked her about it, she commented on how Patrick is saying "no" to what we say, even before he has really thought about what we're asking of him or inviting him to do. This seems to be something that's really common for kids with autism, it turns out.

So, essentially, my efforts to get him to engage have been misplaced -- or perhaps have even backfired -- by causing him to associate my words with a sense that he's about to be forced to do something whether he wants to or not.

The recommendation she offered was to invite him nonverbally when I can. To talk a lot less. And to give him space and time when he's overwhelmed rather than compounding the situation by chasing after him and adding further demands to what he's already experiencing.

It also caused me to reflect on the "demands" of being a parent to child with autism. At least for me, the demands come from the intense feeling of incompetence when your child screams "no" and runs out of the room. It comes from wanting so desperately for him to grow and succeed, and feeling like you're failing and letting him down.

And yet...it is those very feelings that often cause me to chase after him when he runs, those very feelings that cause me to feel like giving up rather than patiently giving him space and re-engaging around a familiar activity.

And so, with a nod to Pema Chodron, I think it's time that I learn to become more familiar and comfortable with these feelings. To sit with them patiently and compassionately. Because in a development that really shouldn't surprise me given the field that I'm in, I'm learning from this that learning to help Patrick is, first, about learning to grow myself.

Peace to all of you.

Monday, March 07, 2011


I do believe I have been unfriended.

For those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the term, "unfriending" is a Facebook term. It's a command used when you have decided to drop someone from your "friend list."

I should clarify that I have not, I think, actually had someone drop me from their Facebook "friend" list. Or if someone should have had the good sense to do so, I have been sublimely ignorant of it.

No, I have been unfriended rather differently, it seems. The particulars of the situation relate to the divorce, and I should think it unseemly to go into the details. Suffice it to say that this person was better friends with my ex-wife than with me, and now no longer desires to be in my company.

I must say that, as someone trained from a very early age to be nice, to be careful, to avoid doing things that could provoke someone's anger...being unfriended is a bit emotionally jarring. My mind reels with thoughts that I had somehow done something wrong, and my heart stabs with a kind of panic at the thought.

And yet...I have done nothing more to this particular individual than to divorce their friend. And I tend to think that the divorce itself happened with some modicum of dignity and respect. So I am left to believe that this person's reaction to me has more to do with their loyalty to my ex-wife than to anything in particular I have done.

In an odd way, I almost admire loyalty like that.

But what strikes me most about this situation is that it represents an old and deep fear of mine, the idea of being rejected for no particular reason that I could control. And in facing this situation, in embracing my reactions, I find that there is some pain, some fear, some anger, some odd and lingering sense of dread.

And that is all.

Mind you, it is not a comfortable experience, and certainly not one I would recommend. But facing it, I realize that it actually holds little power. It is not so terrifying as I imagined it could be in the sixth or seventh grade, when such concerns plagued my young mind.

I can face this, open myself to it, accept it fully. I can be curious and accepting of the experience. And maybe doing that is a pathway to growth.

I am reminded of the lyrics by Ms. Alanis Morissette: "Thank you India/Thank you terror/Thank you disillusionment/Thank you frailty/Thank you consequence/Thank you, thank you, silence."

Peace to you, my friends. And also to my "unfriend."

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

An imperfect revelation

People seem to have a peculiar need to see some things as perfect, as without flaw. There are those who treat the U.S. Constitution, for example, as if it were perfect (particularly the bit about the "second amendment"), neglecting that whole nasty piece about how African-Americans would be considered as less than a whole person. Similarly, there are those who desire to view scripture as inerrant, and who go to great lengths to assure us that obvious biblical discrepancies (e.g., about where exactly Jesus was born) are in fact entirely consistent with one another.

But why? Why are people so fervent in their insistence that such documents are without error?

My own personal belief about this is that believing that such documents are inerrant allows for someone to have a kind of dangerous certainty about their own beliefs. They can believe that they are on God's side, that they are on the side of the framer's of the Constitution, etc. They can believe that they are, in a word, right.

But rightness is dangerous; it leads us to believe that we are justified in putting down those who are "wrong." I daresay that the vast majority of atrocities in the history of our world have been accomplished by those who believed (even fervently believed) that they were right in doing so. Humility, even some degree of doubt, is less comfortable but far less dangerous. Or, better, we should value compassion more dearly than our need to be right.

But going back to revelation for a moment, it seems to me that revelation cannot be anything but imperfect. For one thing, if we view God as attempting to communicate Godself to us through revelation, then we have to see that God has a host of problems. For one thing, revelation has to be translated into words, which are limited and imperfect and prone to misunderstanding. Second, God has the limitation of having to communicate words through people, who we know impart their biases and political objectives into what they say (arguably despite...or even because of...the best of intentions). Third, God's revelation occurs in a historical context, in response to a particular set of problems and needs faced by the people of the time.

But what then does it mean to say that we follow an imperfect set of revelation? Is there something lost in the glory or majesty of religious belief? Or are we called upon to engage our religious texts more fully, to seek layers of depth and meaning in the texts? Do we not grow in some meaningful sense if we wrestle with difficult texts, understanding the context and limitations of the source material? Does it perhaps call on us to have some humility and perspective on our own sense of what is right and true?

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


I have never been a big fan of winter. Perhaps in part this is because I have yet to get into winter sports like skiing or hockey or ice fishing. But for me, winter has been defined by what it lacks: warmth, leaves, the ability to do things outside like golf. And so, in some important sense, winter has always felt to me like a time of deprivation.

But my thinking on this has been challenged lately by two friends of mine. One was a conversation in which my friend revealed that winter is their favorite time of year, one that is not so "hot and buggy" as the summer, one that allows us to see the structure and texture of trees, suddenly revealed without the covering of leaves to obscure our vision.

Another friend wrote a lovely poem about winter on her blog here. And again was the theme of winter as revealing, opening up a reality we had blinded ourselves to seeing.

My mind, of course, immediately responded that the reality we're talking about here is rather cold and unpleasant. And I thought of some of the worst winter moments from my time in North Dakota, where the realities of winter confront you eight months out of the year it seems.

And, interestingly, I then thought about Buddhism and therapy. Because it seems to me that both have to do, in part, with our relationship to unpleasant experiences. Both mindfulness and therapy call upon us to open ourselves to experiences that are unpleasant, to relate to such experiences with more curiosity and acceptance and kindness, to mine such experiences for the wisdom they contain. And, perhaps, to see the beauty in them.

It seems to me that much of our fear in life is diminished when we are no longer uncomfortable with simply accepting the experiences of fear, anger, terror, or loneliness. Indeed, we have much to learn from them, much that can teach us about ourselves and open us up to the experiences of others.

Peace to you all in this time of winter.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Bonhoeffer and revelation

I've been thinking lately of a story I heard at a conference. The presenter was talking about their work with a rather difficult adolescent, who tended to act out when dealing with adults (on the one hand) and associate with problematic peers (on the other hand). And the psychologist who was working with her brought up the notion of a "safety switch." Basically, the idea is that the safety switch has two basic positions: one position should tell us that the situation is safe so that we can be open and vulnerably; the other position should tell us that the situation is dangerous and we need to protect ourselves. His message to this adolescent was that she had a broken "safety switch" such that she couldn't trust those she should -- and didn't protect herself from those she couldn't trust.

I've been thinking about that story as I've listened to Eric Metaxas' book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It's a tale of a remarkable intellect who showed remarkable foresight and courage in confronting the evils of the Third Reich. Part of what struck me about the story was Bonhoeffer's early decision to stand up to the Nazi movement, while many of his peers still sought to maintain a friendly or open relationship with Hitler -- hoping, rather naively in retrospect, to convert him.

I think this story struck me in part because I tend to be a believer in openness. I find the notion of closing one's mind disconcerting, and the root of many evils. For instance, I find that the bigotry against homosexuals often has its root in a closed-minded interpretation of scripture -- or, at least, that people use such interpretations as a kind of justification for their own bigotry.

Which leads me to related point. Often in the biography, there is a discussion of scripture. Bonhoeffer seems to take scripture with utmost reverence, meditating upon it and seeking divine guidance from it. He exhorts his students and followers to follow scripture closely, and asks openly how they can take any other position than what they have -- given what scripture has to say.

In the context of his opposition to Hitler, such arguments are of course heroic. But it seems to me that throughout history we have had to question or de-emphasize certain passages or teachings from scripture. There are passages from Paul that have been used to justify slavery. And there are passages that are still used to justify bigotry against gays and lesbians.

So when Bonhoeffer argues vehemently that he could take no other position because by doing so he would go against the scriptural definition of Christianity itself...I am, on the one hand, awestruck by his courage and conviction...and, on the other hand, discouraged as I can hear those opposed to gay rights using the very same language.

Perhaps there are those who would seek to justify scripture, who would make a scriptural argument against these bigotries. I am hardly a scriptural scholar and cannot pretend to have vast expertise in this area. But it seems to me that the larger issue is that we simply cannot pretend that scripture is without error, without fault. We must face the fact that there is great wisdom in the scripture but also great potential for misuse. And that a text whose last words were written almost 2000 years ago cannot hope to provide definitive guidance to all current social issues.

The tricky question meandering its way through my mind has to do with the fundamental source of Bonhoeffer's opposition to the Nazi regime. Was he outraged by what he saw as the Third Reich's fundamental incompatibility with a church based in scripture? Or did his openness to the suffering of Jewish friends and colleagues guide his thinking? I believe it was likely both. Indeed, I think it a bit misleading to view him as a simple Biblical literalist. Bonhoeffer seemed to do something deeper and more complex than that. He seemed to feel that God was a reality in the world, a reality that could be accessed through scripture, through reading it as if God were speaking some message to us today. It was, I think, his way of opening himself to God.

But to return to the original question, the difficulty is figuring out when we must stand firm, recognize a threat and act against it. How do we know on the other hand when it is best to stay open, to offer friendship and conciliation to those with whom we disagree? I believe that there are those who would simply say that we must ask scripture. But if the scope of scripture has limits and errors (as I believe it does), then our task becomes much more complicated.

In a sense, the task then comes down to the question of whether we believe that God is a historical reality or a present one. For if we believe that God is a reality that speaks to us today, then we must seek to be open to God's revelation. Surely, that can come (and for many has come) through an openness to the messages of scripture. But if God is felt to be the source of all that it good, then surely revelation must also be possible through other avenues of goodness...through an examination of conscience, through compassion for the poor and marginalized, etc.

Naturally, all of this this is fraught with a kind of peril. One person may believe a position to be true; another may believe that God is against such a position. How do we decide? If we limit ourselves to letting scripture alone settle all disagreements, then we are forever bound by the limitations of scripture. If we allow for an openness to revelation from other sources, then we open ourselves to conflicts and disagreements over the true will of God, as we are left without any definitive source of proof.

I should add here that, in fact, I don't think the situation is quite so dire as my previous paragraph makes it sound. I think it is possible to identify larger themes of revelation from scriptural and other sources, to see God's will calling us to compassion, to social justice, to care for the poor, etc. I also believe God has continually challenged us to grow and expand in love, to challenge our prejudices, and not to rest too easily on our assumptions about the way the moral world should work.

Perhaps in the end, we must simply trust in our own (albeit limited) ability to sense God's revelation to our time. We must acknowledge our capacity for error in doing so, and thus do so with humility. (It seems to me that Bonhoeffer did so as he pushed for his view in moving forward with the Confessing Church, but struggled with how this was at odds with the views of other theologians he respected). But this quest to discover God's revelation fundamentally requires openness; an assumption of entirely correct thinking make us deaf. We must not assume that we have all the answers. We must listen so that we can hear what God is saying to us through the voices of our children, through the sufferings of the poor, through the misery of the oppressed, through the devastation of our planet.

At the same time, our very openness to our world should call upon us to take action when it is required. It should cause us to flip our moral "safety switch" and stand with conviction against that which is clearly wrong. In the face of great evil, we must not retreat into safety (which is, itself, a kind of closing) but stay open to God's call for us. In the end, I think this is what Bonhoeffer did.