For much of my life, I’ve been an alien in a strange, foreign land where the natives were gregarious. They engaged in a form of communication called small talk, which to me seemed pointless and irrational. As an alien, I had strange facial expressions and odd body language. While I struggled to interpret theirs, they called mine inappropriate. This made interacting with them exhausting.
The natives were graceful, while I constantly bumped into things, enduring bruises, sprains, and broken bones. When I tried to joke about my lack of coordination, they said I wasn’t that bad. But at the same time, they told me to try harder and scolded me for being careless.
While I could do many things others found difficult, it was the things that most folks find easy that threw me for a loop. In spite of my efforts, I remained klutzy. No matter how hard I tried, my social awkwardness persisted. Although I’m sensitive, caring, hard working, articulate, and intelligent, the natives perceived me as rude, impulsive, immature, and lazy. Despite great effort, I couldn’t work quickly enough, didn’t learn things fast enough, and had a difficult time being neat and organized. I made just enough mistakes that I was considered incompetent.
I worked hard to be like them, but I remained a different species, and failed to fit in. This the natives simply could not understand. Unable to grasp that I could never be like them, they kept trying to make me one of them.
I only wanted what seemed to come to others with relatively little effort: A job I feel good about and which provides my material needs, a family, a home – a piece of the American Dream. I tried the methods that seemed to work for others, but they didn’t work for me. I believed the recipe for success consisted of hard work, persistence, taking risks, capitalizing on one’s talents, and faith in God. So I worked hard, kept trying, took risks, used my gifts, and believed. Rather than leading to success, however, my attempts led to disappointment, disillusionment, discouragement, frustration, self-hatred, and depression. I was tired of the struggle, tired of not getting anywhere no matter how hard I tried. I was angry with God for not making me “normal” or “neurologically typical”. I was tired of watching others succeed while seeing myself fail, over and over and over and over again.
One hundred years ago, Bessie Anderson Stanley defined success this way:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who
had always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”
Today, I too am trying to redefine “success” because for me, what others consider “success” – a measure of the American Dream, a career that is fulfilling and at the same time pays the expenses of life, a home, a family – are not things I’m able to achieve.
I didn’t know I was neurologically divergent until I was in my forties. This meant that much of my life was limited by factors of which I had no knowledge and no control. I was elated to learn that what I thought was a character flaw was a neurological flaw. I was not at fault in all my failed attempts to do good work!
However, while it has been helpful to be able to name the condition and describe it, no one could tell me what to do about it. I am, and always will be, the same person. The traits that cause my difficulties will not go away. I will continue to put something down and forget where it is ten seconds later; to stare at the table long and hard, unable to see the sugar bowl which is right in front of my nose; forgetting how to get somewhere I’ve been before; or failing to recognize folks I should know. Much of what others do automatically and intuitively, I do consciously and thoughtfully – in “manual mode”. I’m trying not to compare myself to others, because I can never be like them.
Booker T. Washington said that “Success is to be measured not so much by the position one has reached in life, as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.” I agree. Success isn’t how far you got, but the distance you traveled from where you started.
I believe success comes by accepting who we are – our talents, our abilities, and our limitations. To me, the ultimate form of success is not where we live or how we make a living, but sharing our gifts and using our talents to benefit others. That is why I quit a secure state job to go on an adventure to Europe to set up seminary libraries. That is why, when my career as a librarian tanked, I began writing. In the years since its publication, my first book, Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning Disability: Stories and Strategies, has helped many NLD and AS adults in the workplace. My weekly column, North Country Kitchen, continues to help people make wholesome meals for themselves and their families.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” I hope I have made a difference.
Today, I’m dreaming new dreams.
I have a dream that some day, people will only look at the positive traits in others and not the negatives.
I have a dream that, someday, people will be valued for their intelligence and skills, and not be seen as weird due to their idiosyncrasies. Those who are different or odd won’t be isolated, ridiculed and rejected but will be accepted and cherished for their unique gifts.
I have a dream that one day, people will understand one another and won’t wonder why someone who’s intelligent, capable, and articulate seems so clueless.
I have a dream that, one day, people will realize that others may have great assets and will simply arrive at knowledge and productivity from a different angle, but with equal validity.
I have a dream that someday all people will be valued for what they can do, what they can contribute, and who they are.