Awesome Autism

A book I recently stumbled upon, by Neil Pasricha, is a great tool that can help us live in reverential astonishment. It is called The Book of Awesome. The author depicts so many mundane and ordinary events and experiences of life as AWESOME. Every mini-chapter in the book ends with the word Awesome! The book is described as a “high five for humanity and a big celebration of life’s little moments.” It shows how so many experiences we usually call awful can be seen as awesome.

I have a special affinity for the word awesome because it is my son Johnny’s most favorite word. He has several T-shirts like “The definiton of awesome: you are looking at it,” “Welcome to my awesome world,”I brought the awesome: what did you bring?

He repeats that word at least two dozen times a day. He is a 21 year old young man with the mind-set and manners of a three year old. He is pure innocence incarnated, with the beauty of an angel’s heart. Johnny cannot bear the thought of anyone around him being sad or disagreeable. He has to make sure that people who interact with him — his parents, his brother, teachers, friends, neighbors — are always okay. He will look into their eyes and say awesome, and until they respond with awesome, he is not going to leave them alone. Awesome is the word that calms his anxiety and settles his world.

How does a 21 year old disabled man who lacks so much by worldly standards, always feel awesome? The biggest lesson Johnny has taught me is that in order to be happy, you don’t need much, and that a person only needs to be happy in his or her world. We should not cut and paste our ideas of happiness into other people’s worlds. Johnny’s world is a limited one that contains his parents, his school, his church, Publix supermarket, Target store, library, french fries, chicken nuggets and soda. He doesn’t need the fastest car or the cutest girlfriend or the latest gadgets. He never argues or whines, obeys instantly and is a pleasure to be around. He is just an awesome kid (man) with an awesome life. Being around Johnny raises my level of contentment and gratitude for everything in life. Johnny helps me to see my life as awesome too.

A second lesson that my awesome Johnny has taught me is that life is all about awareness. You are only affected by what you are aware of. What you don’t know can’t hurt or help you. Whatever is covered by the four corners of your awareness is what matters; the rest, whatever it is or how big it is, doesn’t really matter. No, if the tree fell in the middle of the forest and there was nobody to hear it, it didn’t make a noise. It confirms the relativity of everything and unmasks the absurdity of holding on to absolutes in life. Johnny’s autistic brain doesn’t compute the ebbs and flows of a complex life nor does it imagine the unattainable or grieve the loss of lost dreams. His brain doesn’t seem to scan the past for regrets or scope the future and worry. He lives a simple life, fully immersed in the here and now, totally unaware of the tragedies and comedies of life, both real and imagined, that assail the rest of us.

So, what happens to you when you live an awesome life of total amazement? The first sign of a life of amazement is that you have a grateful heart. You are thankful for who you are with your limitations and brokenness and what you have even though it is not much. You start seeing people and things beyond their superficial appearance. You start seeing them as human beings, not Black, White, Hispanic, or Asian. You take nothing and nobody for granted. Your arrogance becomes amazement; your apathy turns into appreciation; your arguments become agreements; your panic turns into peace and your hate becomes grace.

You are less critical and more curious. You are less judgmental and more joyful. You start using the word awesome more and awful, less. Instead of being conservative or liberal, you become more spiritual; you go neither right nor left, but deeper. You move away from black and white thinking and become comfortable with the irony and paradox of life. You start seeing every person you encounter as an image of God, the mystery and miracle that he or she is. Moving out of the dark dungeon of negativity and despair, you start living in a liminal space of grace and peace.

That is how little children live; they are amazed at everything around them. Their hearts are not hardened by the callus of pride; their eyes are not dimmed by the cataract of envy. They marvel at the world around them. That is why child-like simplicity was posited by Jesus as a requirement for inheriting the Kingdom.

When you start living with amazement, you will join the Sufi mystic and see that “God sleeps in stones, dreams in plants, stirs in animals and awakens in humanity.”

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