Speaking at a conference last year, I made friends with Jill Carey who runs Festina Lente (Hasten Slowly) an equestrian
program in Wicklow, Ireland for disadvantaged kids.
Jill presented on the last morning and the room was full. She had a polished presentation with useful advice, good stories and evidence based practices. People were leaning in. Towards the end, a mother with an infant shyly slipped into the back of the room – some of the women frowned. They’d seen this mother and baby in other sessions and the baby was notoriously fussy and loud. Sure enough, as Jill was winding up to deliver her key points, the baby started wailing.
Eyes rolled. Heads wagged. I looked to Jill to see how she would handle this. She stopped talking, cocked her head and said in her lovely Irish lilt “is there anything more beautiful than the sound of a healthy baby crying?” She smiled and looked lovingly on the mother and baby.
The room changed immediately. I changed profoundly. Most of us were mothers and/or aunties and grandmothers and for a minute, we we all grateful that this child’s lungs were clear and her cry was robust and healthy.
My friend Jill, with a moment of gratitude and humanity, turned a roomful of resentment into a estrogen-laden love fest. With one question, she turned eyeball rolling to sighs of contentment and celebration. Through compassion – she moved the room to joy.
So when I read this news story about neighbors suing an autism family for decreasing their property values. I wondered how to change the conversation.
Last night and was talking to a friend – a smart and thoughtful friend and she brought it up. She said she had mixed feelings after reading the articles. She wouldn’t want to live around a kid that was “attacking her kids.”
She asked me to weigh in.
“Every family we serve at the ranch lives in fear of something like this. Each one has stories of how people see their kids as ‘spoiled’ ‘crazy’ or ‘undisciplined.’ They’ve been attacked in restaurants, found terrible notes on their cars and doors. Their stories will break your heart as a mother.”
Oh – she said.
“Every family” I continued “gets bullied by neighbors and even well-meaning family members about ‘all that kid needs is a good spanking/military school/whatever.'”
Wow – I didn’t realize – she said.
“One moment of compassion or a little effort to try and understand this family would make the neighborhood a real community and yet these neighbors chose to be small minded and turn the rest of the neighborhood against this struggling family. They had the chance to touch something special and they chose otherwise.”
My friend nodded and was quiet for a while.
Then I told her the story of my Irish friend and the crying baby. She was clearly affected. She was able to connect with the story of the crying baby and the shy mother in a way that she couldn’t identify with the autism family. But through that story, she began to understand. And it was good.
I wish I had one sentence that would connect communities to the autism families in their neighborhood in a beautiful and compassionate way. I don’t yet, but I will keep looking.
In the meantime, I’ll share one of my favorite bits of wild wisdom from the Sufi poet Hafiz
It’s your choice to be the small man or to be the Sage. Be the Sage.