As I prepared to post this, I thought about the “Joy in the Journey” that I’ve experienced because of my friends with special needs. If you love, “Welcome to Holland,” please watch our dance interpretation of Emily Perl Kingsley’s powerful words:
To My Friends With Special Needs:
I usually write about you but I decided it was time that I write to you instead. I want all 503 of you, whether you’re three or sixty-five, whether I’ve known you for a few months or for years, to know that I see the differences in us.
I see how we conduct ourselves and I find your way to be far superior to mine. I want you to know that I’m trying to be a better person by following your example. I’m making progress, little by little…day by day. When you’re as old – and as flawed – as I am, it takes a minute.
Here are just eight of the things that make you a better person than me and that I am trying to change:
1. The way you treat me is how I should treat other people. You accept me exactly as I am. You never judge me and when I let you down, you forgive me completely. When I do something right, you celebrate and when I’m wrong, you tell me so…and then you always give me a second chance or a third chance or as many chances as I need.
The way I treat other people? Let’s just say I’ve got some work to do.
2. You don’t let negative emotions define your life. People who don’t know you the way I do may think that you are always happy or that you don’t experience the whole range of human emotions in the same way “normal” people do. But I know that you hurt, just like me. I know you feel frustration and disappointment, fear and anger, shame and guilt, heartbreak and bitterness. The difference between us is that you don’t let these negatives emotions dominate you.
I’m bogged down by years of emotional baggage. I avoid trying new things because I’m afraid to fail. I throw myself pity parties on a regular basis. I worry what others think of me. I sometimes do things just because my ego needs to be bolstered or because I want to win someone’s approval.
By contrast, you may be afraid to fail but you try anyway. You don’t let the opinions of others stop you from doing something you want to do. You are constantly underestimated by others, marginalized by our society and left out of things the rest of us take for granted. You don’t allow these injustices to get you down…you soldier on, usually with a smile on your face.
Now, I don’t mean to infantilize you or make light of what I know is your desire to be accepted. You feel every slight, you are aware of every stare and insult, and sometimes, it must be more than you can stand. But you choose to accept the challenges life has sent with grace and dignity. You could make the choice I make and allow negatives to inhibit you but thankfully, you don’t.
And you do not know how to feel sorry for yourself…that’s just not your style.
3. You willingly display your vulnerability. Some of you are plagued by doubts and worries or live with intense anxiety. You may not like to be touched or you may not be able to tolerate changes in your routine.
When I’m anxious or worried or overwhelmed, I retreat and wall myself off. I put up my defenses and resist anyone who tries to encourage me. “I’m fine,” I say to people who ask what’s wrong, or “Nothing,” I say to loved ones who wonder what’s bothering me.
Unlike me, you’re not ashamed to ask for help. You are willing to admit your insecurities. I spend my time trying to hide mine.
4. You understand that words are often the very thing that prevents us from really communicating with each other.
Some of you are not able to speak but you communicate much better than I do.
I talk all the time (mostly about myself in one form or another) and yet, my communication with people is often guarded and cynical. I am frequently mistrustful of the intentions of others.
For you, the absence of words means that you communicate with your eyes, your hands, your movements, your heart. You know that words are not a requisite for connecting with others.
5. You say what you mean and you mean what you say. When I first got to know you, I found it disarming that you are so utterly honest and so totally literal and transparent. You have no concept of insincerity or sarcasm or anything other than complete authenticity. You do not have the capacity to be disingenuous.
I am manipulative. I’m not afraid to throw my weight around or to use intimidation if I think its necessary. My own self-interest is of paramount importance to me. You don’t realize this about me – my duplicity and selfishness – and I hope you never do because I couldn’t stand for you to be disappointed in me.
6. You don’t understand recriminations or blame or fault-finding. You understand forgiveness.You often get angry, at yourself or at others or at the unfairness of life in general, but you express your anger and then…you’re over it.
I can get mad quicker and stay mad longer than anyone I know. I’m still holding onto grudges against people for perceived slights from decades ago.
You get your anger out and then you move on…quickly and without any fuss.
7. You do not define yourself by your success…or by your failures. When I accomplish something, I boast. Maybe not out loud, but I post on social media or I let that inner voice in my head tell me that I’m a big deal. I’m too eager to tout my credentials, show off my resume, display my awards.
Nothing I accomplish comes close to the things I’ve seen you achieve – first steps when when doctors said you would never walk, words that therapists said you’d never speak, challenging dance combinations and songs that you master.
You are competitive and enjoy a good standing ovation or pat on the back. When you accomplish something, you celebrate…with gusto. But after the celebration is over, you just move on to the next challenge.
8. You understand that it’s better to happy than it is to be right. I hate to be wrong and I am reluctant to admit I don’t have all the answers. I want to have the last word.
You are perfectly comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” There are only three phrases you use as the “last word” and they are “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” or “We disagree but I love you anyway.”
Thank you for teaching me these lessons. And for giving me as many chances as I need to get it right. Be patient with me…this is gonna take a while!
With all my love,