Sometimes reluctance drags at the edges of a smile like invisible weight. It feels as though the pudgy fingers of some ominous, unforgiving beast stick fat at the corners of the lips and pull down, pulling some rather not place, forcing a rather not feeling. Reluctance is a bully. It hauls you in the deep end and climbs on top of you, pushing you under its weight until you feel as though this moment will just swallow you up. And when that happens, you begin to crumble.
I look at Adam, and I can see it happening, the monster pulling down the smile my son wills so hard to curve back up. The resulting grimace makes me ache. Tears pool in Adam’s eyes and he blinks them away. I can tell you now that it’s about nothing, but that only means it’s about nothing for me. To him, it’s something.
Please, let it pass.
I’m asking him to do something uncomfortable today, something at some level I know he wants to be able to do.
“Don’t be sad,” I say, and Adam looks startled, as though he doesn’t know that all his effort to chase away reluctance doesn’t work. It’s as though he thinks his tears are invisible, like that spectral bully. He looks away. Not my will.
“Wooohooo,” he says, with mock enthusiasm, and his deep voice cracks into falsetto. “High five!” He means the last to come out exultant, but it’s barely a whisper, the sound stolen. “Woohoo!” At first, it makes me smile because I can’t decide if he’s trying to be okay for me or for him or for both of us, and it’s a laughable cover-up, sweet.
But then I remember what I said not even a minute ago, and I think maybe he’s trying to manufacture some enthusiasm for my sake. And that’s when I feel like there’s a fissure opening in my throat. He doesn’t have to pretend for me, not ever; I don’t begrudge him his tears. Don’t be sad was the wrong thing to say. I should have said, “I know this is hard for you.” I should have hugged him and said that I understand. And so I do now. I reach for him and pull him to me, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Adam, I know, son. But trust me, this is good. It will be okay.”
That’s the truth. In this case, I know it will be okay, or I wouldn’t say it; I’d let the words die in my throat.
“Woohooo,” he says again, swallowing, trying to smile.
He’s going to spend the day away from home with our youth group helping other people; he’ll pull weeds, maybe, or trim bushes, or stuff yard waste into bags. But he’s never been where he’s going, and that worries him a little. I saw him check the address book–he’s mapped every address in there on Google at least once. So he can imagine the turns the car will take to get him there even though he’s never seen the place; at least he can hear that automated voice echoing in his mind, telling him what to expect. At least that part will be predictable. How often, standing at the edge of the flood, do I wish to count on just one predictable thing?
The thing about anxiety is that no one chooses to feel it; we just do. And if reluctance is a bully, autism turns anxiety into a gruesome and perverse kidnapper, the kind that’ll snatch a person suddenly and strip him of his freedom. For Adam, giving into the bully is like sitting right down waiting to be snatched up by an even meaner enemy. The only thing to do is to stare reluctance in the face, to acknowledge it and then to refuse it, even as it tugs at the edges of courage. Not.my.will. Adam knows this. I know this.
At the end of the day, going anyway will be as important for Adam as any other choice all day. The pilgrimage into unfamiliar territory will grow him in more ways than one; it will grant him more freedom, enlarging the boundaries around possibility. For me, of course, the decision to send him is uncomplicated. It promises to be a reasonably safe experience with people who care for Adam and who will watch out for him and protect him. From my perspective, it’s the best kind of opportunity. But for Adam, it’s like an Abrahamic journey: “Leave your comfortable and predictable and go to the place I’ll show you.” And going anyway isn’t easy. It takes faith. It takes him believing I know what I’m doing, him trusting me. But trust me, I said. Ah, but isn’t that what God says to me, when He sends me to take hold of His promises?
It’s stunning, the resemblance, the way God uses the small to mirror the vast. How often do I try to mask my own reluctance, to pretend I don’t feel that nasty bully dragging me under? And the thing I most want Adam to know, me standing tiptoe now to wet my thumb with his tears, is that it’s okay to admit that reluctance feels like a purpling bruise. It’s okay for him to cry.
Because feeling reluctant to go is not the same thing as choosing to stay.