A few days ago I was on Facebook and was watching a conversation unfold between a former colleague of mine and his "like-minded" friends. I do not mean like-minded in terms of their views, because some were staunchly Republican and the others were lefties for sure. What I mean is the style of discourse... the desire to use facts, linear thinking and the mind to win something. It seemed to me (especially because of the name calling) that the primary intention was not to communicate, but to dominate. They were talking about racism in the Republican party and a quick scan showed me there were no people of color in the conversation... or women, really.
In fact, there was no other "voice." The only voice in this conversation was the voice of the privileged, the properly-educated, the rational, the linear, the fast thinking... the winners! As I watch this conversation I began to think about another voice I know. The one that does not get heard because the delivery is not clipped and condensed, it does not come as sound bites or facts. It comes in allegory, story and relationship. It takes time, presence and patience to both speak and receive. I wonder what this voice might add to the national discourse if we understood it was missing and took the time to listen? I am pretty sure wisdom does not come in sound bites.
I have spent the last few months working with and learning from a man who is on the autism spectrum. His name is David Patten, and he has just written the book called Dummy: A Memoir. I helped with outreach for the book (full disclosure) but the only reason I can write this blog post is because I did.
I met David, who is funny, warm, communicative and intelligent (he has a genius conceptual IQ), initially on the phone. In the beginning, our conversations would last hours. As a professional communicator, I have to say I have never spent this much time with anyone trying to understand their message so that I could adequately bring it to the world.
But the time we spent talking really mattered to him, and very soon it mattered to me. David could not really read or write. It was my job to take his words and write them, which given the content of the story felt like a sacred task. But first I had to find the proper way to listen. Truth be told, I can also be like one those people I fault above! Sound bite gal, given what I do for a living. I am moving and speaking quickly. At the beginning I would get frustrated because he could not explain things directly, point by point, linearly as most of us can. I would cut him off, say words I thought he meant, try to speed up the process... a few times I wanted to slam down the phone in frustration. But something inside me knew that this was an important lesson, and I was determined to serve David's story and so I had to learn how to listen to it.
David does not see things as unrelated. He cannot give us a "top level" summary. He cannot bullet point things to shorten the discussion. He takes his time so that you can understand the level of complexity that he sees, so that you can grock that nothing happens in a vacuum, that everything effects everything else. When he speaks, he creates an experience though his weaving of situational influences. He is a story teller -- pretty amazing for someone who cannot read or write. In our conversations I soon learned that because of his condition and heightened sensitivity he saw and understood things that few others knew. There is a whole other world out there, and it offers the wisdom of the deeply sensitive -- it can be particular, meticulous and slow, but the payoff is big, for through the listening you actually go on journey into yourself.
In a way I am like David, deeply sensitive and as a child, easily overwhelmed by sound and stimulus. (Yes I know there are many symptoms of autism that I do not have, but I really think all human beings are just on a spectrum of functionality... we are all autistic, and some of us can function within the confines of the culture.) My natural way would be to talk in a circle, round and round, weaving together the here and now with the then, but I cultivated the hard, decisive and assertive way to function in this world. I was lucky... I could. Others like David could not and cannot. In our culture these people become throwaways. They do not write for Time magazine, they do not get their books reviewed in the New York Times, they are not let into the "Academy," and with them go their insights, offerings and their beauty (and by this I really mean their voice is essential for our survival) and we are left with one voice, one opinion and one way. We do not even know we have lost many voices, many gifts.
This book is raw and risky. He shows his hidden parts in a way that allows us all to relax a bit about the unbelievably stupid things we have done or even what we think are hardships in life. He makes our flaws just human, not because his life was so severe, but because he finally found a place inside himself that said yes to being who he was... because of his capacity to softly accept his humanity (and if you ask him he will tell you life beat it out if him). If he, who could survive a system that still does not understand what he offers, a suicide attempt, time in a psychiatric ward and abusive experimental home for schizophrenics (knowing he was not insane) and even the criminal underworld on the streets of Chicago, can surrender to just being human, then who am I not to follow his lead? If we all did this, I bet the other voice would miraculously appear.
In his own voice, David Patten:
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
For more by Megan McFeely, click here.
For more on autism, click here.
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