Thursday, April 21, 2011
The Human Condition
A few days ago, I watched a guy hit 7 straight free throws. There was nothing world shaking about that. What was amazing was that 7 of 7 rebounds after those made shots bounced right back to where he stood. And he was doing it on purpose. He wasn't just practicing making shots, but shots that were so on-target that the rebounds were bouncing right back to where he stood, on two hops, 15 feet from the basket, so consistently that he didn't have to move his feet to secure the ball and take his next shot.
When he missed the eighth shot, clanging the back of the iron, he looked at me and mumbled, "Just getting my autism on," then went back to nail his next two, with the same automatic return rebound. It was a moment of insight for me.
I am autistic, as well.
I have OCD.
I'm a schizophrenic.
I have social anxiety disorder.
I have depression.
I'm an addict.
I'm a savant.
I have Tourettes.
I'm whatever you call it when one usually finds language easy and fun, but struggles with mathematical concepts, even sometimes very basic ones, combined with a tendency to procrastinate and a bit of a phone phobia.
To some degree, we all have or are every "condition" known to medical science and every other undiagnosed one as well, because they are all expressions of the human condition. Some aspects of what it means to be human are so pronounced in the personalities of some of us that we can lump those people together under a heading, while others are so prevalent that labels are not particularly useful, so we call that "normal."
I know that everything on my list here doesn't fit neatly into the proper definition of "disorder" as psychologists use it, but the National Institute for Mental Health estimates that more than 26 percent of us suffer from a mental disorder in any given year. That's a number so high that it calls into question the whole concept of "normal." In a world in which 1 in 4 of us, at any given moment, are "abnormal," what does it mean to be normal? And I would assert, as a mere observer of the human condition, that the number comes much closer to 4 in 4, especially when you consider that our times of intense OCD, for instance, might be relatively passing ones of a week or a day or even a late evening of scrubbing the shower tiles well beyond your basic clean. And just as that unknown free throw shooter found value and pleasure in his passing autistic moment, these disorders, indeed often show up as blessings when creativity, problem solving, or self-reflection are called for. I would even argue that they are all adaptive traits, ones the human species needs in some measure in order to survive, even if we don't yet fully understand how or why.
No, we've all experienced the full range of what it means to be human, including all of the officially recognized disorders and beyond. It's the human condition, and it shows up as a problem when it bumps up against our ability to function within society and its institutions. Naturally, in extreme cases, these conditions can cause a person to be a danger to himself or others, but most of the time the problems we face have at least as much to do with the inflexibility of our institutions as it does the individual humans who are showing up as a problem.
As a teacher, I've known students who've shown signs of every condition and disorder on my list and more. In fact, I would go so far as to say that every child at one time or another displays the symptoms of every one of them. And in over a decade in preschool classrooms with an infinitely flexible play-based curriculum, I can honestly say that we've always found a comfortable place for every child within our community without resorting to drugs or some sort of segregation. It isn't always easy. We've had to scramble to figure out new ways of teaching, new ways of reaching out and into children, new ways of organizing our play and our day to suit the whole community. But, then again, we've had to do that in both large and small ways for every child.
Most of them have gone on to more traditional schools after 3 years, ready for the challenges, already becoming experts in the "work arounds" they've needed to develop in order to thrive in a world that doesn't always match their strengths. To my great frustration and even despair, however, too many have gone on to less accommodating classrooms where drugs and segregation enter into the conversation. I can't help but see this as a sign that the institutions themselves have become more important than the individuals they are ostensibly there to serve.
I know, I know, fixing the institutions would be expensive and impractical, which is the argument that is always trotted out in opposition to every progressive reform. And I'm certainly not advocating for parents to ignore the advice of their children's doctors.
In fact, I don't even really know why I'm writing this piece, other than to share my little epiphany. Maybe this insight is already old hat to you. I hope so. I hope I'm the last to know, because part of my own personal "disorder" is that I'm often very slow to learn things that others find natural and easy.
Which, frankly, is everyone's disorder, because every human finds some things hard and some things easy, things that make sense and things that don't, things that we can learn via straight lines and others that require a long and winding road. It's the human condition and the only "cure" is to tap into the store of empathy we've saved up during our lives of being human and learn to fill in the imperfections of others, and trust that others will make up for the imperfections in us.