“How did the girls do, Charlie?” is a question I ask fairly frequently this time of year. For the past 8 seasons, Charlie has served as manager of the girls’ volleyball team at Torrey Pines High School. He’s hugely proud of this handle. When we are out and about in the world and he is meeting someone new, he will often share his name, followed with the immediate additional and important detail that he is the manager of the Falcon volleyball team. This team is a D-1 super talented collection of athletes, frequently ranked among the top 10 in the nation. They are competitive, intense, and extremely serious business. The outcome of a game matters in their world. Winning means advancing and potential exposure to college recruiters.
Losing means …. well, they don’t lose very often.
Charlie loves to work the volleyball games. He sits on the bench, fills water bottles, doles out high fives to the players, and occasionally entertains the crowd with cartwheels, dance moves or whatever else inspires him. The crowd will respond with chants of, “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie! Games bring him more joy than anything else I can think of. When he comes through the front door after a game, I like to ask how the girls did. I’m of course fishing around for win or loss info, but Charlie’s answer is consistently, “Oh mom, they just played great!” I love this answer. Every time. The winning or losing is not important to him, but the belonging and the joy of being in the energy-filled gym is everything to him.
Tonight the girls will play their first game in the CIF Open Division State Playoffs. Charlie will be there on the team bench, and the only one insouciant to the score. So is his apparent indifference to the result due to his being unaware of the concepts of competition, winning and the importance of a score, or is it because he is indifferent to those ideas and his concern lies in realms outside of winning and losing?
Charlie is my oldest of 3 sons. He has been living with an autism diagnosis since he was 3. He is now 23.
In my study and exploration of spirituality these past 12 months, I’ve learned a great deal about the qualities of consciousness. A few important aspects of consciousness include, living without judgment of self or others, mindfulness, and awareness of the ego and its ability to undermine joy and love. Each of these is worthy of lengthy conversation and pursuit. I’ve been working on cultivating more of these qualities in my own self and can genuinely share that I’m aware of a resulting deeper purpose and joy in life. I’m also aware of how much opportunity for further growth I have – letting go of judgment and living in the present is challenging for me.
Here is the gem I wish to share with the whole world. Charlie and many (perhaps most!) of his peers with special needs are far more evolved in consciousness than many of us. The level of mastery Charlie has in these areas became clear to me rather recently. I struggle to achieve micro steps in growth in consciousness, so to have a new understanding of Charlie as a master of the areas of life that underlie purpose and joy is a rather radical shift in perception. Our labels of disabled, handicapped, disadvantaged, defective, mutant, deformed, disturbed, impeded, etc.… might be more accurately replaced with labels like Highly Developed, Masters, Teachers, Examples, etc.… Wild thought, isn’t it?
In the 23 years I’ve known Charlie, I have rarely, if ever, heard him express negative judgments about himself or others. To him, it does not matter the way a person learns or looks, where they live, how much money they have, or what their heritage is. He only sees a person he presumes to be good and worthy of his loving concern. He can get frustrated with people when they break rules, as he understands them, but he doesn’t judge. I don’t know any other like him in this way. In truth, I start my day nearly every day with negative self-judgment when I look in the mirror in the morning – I’m getting old, I look fat today, etc.
… I also will have negative judgments about others every day. I catch myself thinking if only he or she did something better, all else in life would be better kind of thinking.
In addition to being non-judgmental and in his loving, Charlie is a living example of being present. Mindfulness must be a million dollar industry by now. I can tell you that Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra have nothing on Char and his peers. I think this quality is what I admire most in Charlie. He lives in this moment right now, fully available to the love and joy that is present. He doesn’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, but fully experiences the now. I wish I had that ability. Even when I am enjoying a moment with him or anyone else, my mind is often preoccupied with tasks that seem to need my attention or worry. The joy and connection I feel to others would be more meaningfully experienced if I were more practiced at being present, let alone the benefits of enhanced consciousness. Hear the self-judgment in that, by the way? Oh, the irony.
I heard an interesting statement last week: “The ego is addicted to suffering.” We all have ego, of course, and it usually tells us we are not enough or we need more of something to be happy or loveable. The finish line or measure is rarely reached because the ego keeps moving the end goal further out. We always seem to think of ourselves as needing to be more of something or have more of something. Charlie has no struggle with his ego. In fact, I don’t see it at work in his life at all. He’s content with who he is and what he has. I don’t hear him say he needs to be more of something or own more of anything, to be happy. As I said, he finds joy in what he finds available in the moment, and that is a tempering of ego and awareness of authentic self like I’ve never known.
What is unfortunate is that we cloister Charlie and his peers in ways that separate them from us. We put them in separate classrooms. We institutionalize them. We tend to keep them away from our kids. We look away. We avoid contact. We pity. What a missed opportunity. The truth is, as I am learning, we possibly have life’s most important material to learn from them. Their consciousness seems far more evolved than ours, or at least mine. It would be amazing if we opened ourselves up to this possibility.
I wish I could go back to all of the IEP meetings we had when Charlie was in school where teams of experts would gather around tables to set goals for him. Charlie will learn to tie his shoes with 75% accuracy as measured by teacher. Charlie will learn to respond to a direction with 90% accuracy as measured by teacher. Charlie will not sing out loud in class, with no more than 2 reminders in a day as measured by teacher. His ability to attain these goals or not would determine what classroom he would be in the next year. Would he move onto the “higher functioning” special-education room, or the more remedial room? Yes, these goals can be important, but I missed an opportunity. If I could, I would redo those meetings, and each teacher at the table would have set a consciousness goal for themselves to be measured against Charlie’s standard. Teacher will be 100% present in the classroom, with no more than 2 reminders in a day, as measured by Charlie’s modeling. Teacher will not be judgmental of herself/himself or the students 95% of the time, as measured by Charlie’s modeling. That simple modification to our IEP meetings would have cultivated dignity and respect, but most importantly, would have fostered a shift in understanding of what we can learn from him. It puts shoe tying in perspective. I would wish this modification in all IEP meetings for all kids. Imagine the shift in conversation and experience of all involved. It could be radically beautiful.
Although I write specifically about my son, as he is my teacher, I venture that you too might see areas where “that child” or “that family member” of yours has admirable strengths in consciousness. If you find yourself experiencing these relationships as chronically taxing, consider looking into their soul. My guess is you will discover new beauty.
So back to the volleyball game and the girls “playing great.” Does Charlie never report wins or losses to me because he is unaware of competition and winning, or is his soul operating in a different reality? I believe the latter. I think he is in the moment, in the game, fully conscious, and not needing to see a win to see winners.
Be open-minded and open hearted.
Update: The game was last night. Result? The girls played great.