Same Event, Different Stories

I've come to learn that for whatever events we encounter in life, we get to decide their significance and meaning. The same event can have many different interpretations. The story that you tell with those events determines the meaning they have.

Here are two different stories of the very same event. You'll see many similarities, but hopefully they make you feel very differently.

Gifted: A story of Benjamin

My younger brother, Ben, is one of the smartest people I know. And I come from a family of computer programmer and engineers. He can name any president by numerical order, as well as tell you which ones had beards, which one was a bachelor, which was president when the Titanic sank, and which one was president twice. He can multiply two five digit numbers together in his head, and when he was ten, he came up with a mathematical concept that he called “prisming”, which our genius uncle explained to mean he had conceptualized a forth dimension without any help from anyone. One time in church, the minister was trying to demonstrate how intimidating it can feel to be confused and he said, “See, if I just ask, what’s ((5+7)/3*1.5)^2, nobody would know the answer.” To which Ben’s hand shot up and he simply stated, “Thirty-six.”

Ben’s incredible gifts come from being Autistic, which means he also has trouble communicating. Sometimes he’ll get upset about something, and just start yelling, and the most explanation he can offer is a furious, “Bain from Batman made me angry!” which is not terribly helpful when we’re trying to fix whatever set him off in the first place. It can also be hard when we are trying to communicate with him, like when I try to explain (after he’s listed his 25 favorite superheroes, along with their favorite, numbers, snacks, holidays, and colors) that I just want to take small break and talk with mom for a bit, before I listen to him tell me their favorite movies as well. And it doesn’t mean that I’m mad at him, I still love him and all his favorite superheroes too.

My whole family just loves him to death, but recently, he’s become increasingly hard to live with. As he’s gotten stronger, his violent tendencies have become more dangerous to those around him, and more and more often, he would yell and scream all night long, making it impossible for anyone in the whole house to get any sleep. This summer it got so bad that we had to check him into a psychiatric ward. At first no sibling visits were allowed, and all of us siblings are incredibly protective of Ben, so this caused a lot of emotions, some of which were handled better than others. Finally, when my sister and I were allowed to visit him, we schlepped all the way out to the clinic, making sure to bring all his favorite treats: ice cream, cookies, and most importantly, strawberry milkshake.

He was in group-session when we arrived, so my sister and I sat anxiously in the visitors room, both blabbering on about the most inane things we could think of to break the silence. Not only do I have no idea what she said to me in those excruciating 12 minutes, but I have no idea what I said either. I could have told an entire story about how I rode my pet purple llama to Kalamazoo, and neither of us would have noticed. Our eyes were just glued to the door Ben was about to come out of.

When he finally came out to greet us, he smiled the biggest smile I’d seen in ages (although he was most excited about the milkshake). We spent a glorious hour just talking about all his favorite Disney Characters—about the silly Lumiere, the naughty Gaston, and the hospitable Mrs. Potts. He didn’t have much interest in boring questions like, What he did that day? Was he making friends? Was he homesick? He only wanted to talk about the things he loves most, so that’s what we did.

But before we left him that day, I just needed to know that he knew we still loved him to pieces, and him being here was not a punishment. Most importantly, I needed him to know that he was going to come home. But I didn’t know how to make sure he understood. I didn’t want to just tell him he was coming home. I needed to know that he knew he was coming home. And I needed to ask him in a way he would understand. So first I asked him, “Ben, what is the percent chance that Gaston will defeat the Beast?” And he beamed that enormous smile that makes my heart melt, and exclaimed, “Zero percent!” And I said “That’s right!” And then I asked, “Hey Ben, what’s the percent chance that you are coming home?” And he looked at me, thoughtfully—as if he knew how important this question was, that this was a serious question—and with the same calm confidence that he had when he answered that math question in church, he looked me right in the eye and said, “A hundred percent.” And that’s when I knew everything would be ok.

Adulting: The connection of childishness

My brother Ben is the sweetest and most genuine person I have ever known. He’s autistic, and he doesn’t always understand the nuanced, squishy subtleties of human behavior, so he is fundamentally incapable of being deceitful or disingenuous. Not only does he not know how, but he doesn’t even understand what those concepts are. So he has this incredible, pure, untainted expression of his emotions. Like when he talks about superheroes. Now, I’ll go see an Avengers movie now and then, but I couldn’t care less about how many times Batman has defeated Bain versus the Penguin. But when Ben is just bursting to tell me, with pure, unadulterated joy, every single word said between Superman and Lex Luther during his favorite TV episode, there is nothing in the world that I find more interesting. His sheer love and passion is so contagious, that no matter how many times he’s told me the exact same details, I never get tired of hearing them.

You know, I think as adults, we hold ourselves to very high standards. We expect ourselves to be mature, have our shit together, understand the world with all its complexities. And there’s good reason for it. We forgive kids when they observe to random strangers on the buss, “You’re quite fat,” because they don’t know any better, but obviously if we all went around doing that, it would severely impact the mental health of a lot of people. But I think in exchange for that sensitivity to the world, we do sacrifice a bit of childish wonder and that ability to experience unbridled emotions. When we’re our more grown-up versions of ourselves, maybe that holds us back when what we really want is to instantly bond with someone over our uncontrollably love of cookies. Spending time with Ben allows me to be that excited kid again.

Unfortunately, life is full of painful experiences and hard emotions too. Autism for example brings a lot of challenging behaviors with it, and there was a point last summer when Ben would spend every night screaming for hours on end, often til 4 in the morning. It got bad enough that my mom checked him into a mental facility. (I should mention, without telling any of us kids.) It was a really hard time for my family, and it brought our all of our fiercest protective sides, because each and every one of us would kill for that kid. There was a lot of arguing of what should have been done, what should be done next, because we were all grappling with these big questions of what was best for Ben, for our family, and how to handle really tough decisions in very uncertain times.

When my sister and I finally got to go visit him, we were still struggling with a lot of these questions. We really wanted to know how he was doing, so we kept asking him questions like, How are you feeling? Are you making any friends? Are you scared? What have you been doing? We were just dying for any scrap of information. He mostly answered our questions—a lot of “fine”s and “ok”s—but honestly, he hadn’t seen his siblings in a couple days, and he did not want to spend that time answering questions about his daily activities. He just wanted to talk about his favorite movie characters. He just was dying to tell us how silly Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast was, and how furious Cogsworth gets when Lumiere breaks the rules. So I stopped trying to be an adult. I didn’t know the right thing to say in that moment, or what I should tell him, or what was the smart thing to ask. I just knew that I loved him. And I wanted him to know that. And I wanted to make sure that he didn’t think we were abandoning him there. So Ben loves math and numbers, so I asked him “Hey Ben! What’s the percent chance that Gaston will defeat the Beast?” And he just beamed and grinned ear to ear and proclaimed “Zero percent!” And I smiled and replied, “That’s right! And Ben, what’s the percent chance that you’re coming home?” And he just looked me right in the eyes and said “A hundred percent.” And that was all I needed to hear.