As the saying goes, sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees – you concentrate so hard on the details that you miss the big picture. By the same token, it’s possible to notice the whole while ignoring it’s individual parts – seeing the forest but neglecting to acknowledge the trees.
Then there are those moments when you see both at the same time. It’s all about perspective.
I remember it clearly. I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, deeply engrossed in my activity, carefully cutting pieces of cardboard and taping them together to make horses and farmers to go with the cardboard barn I had made.
I could play like this for hours in my quiet, safe cocoon, fully content to be alone with my creativity.
Carefully I drew a face and clothes on the farmer with a black magic marker then folded his legs so that he could ride his cardboard horse. My world consisted of just this activity at that moment – the farmer, the horse, the barn – a little cardboard world of my own creation.
As I began cutting out the next addition to my farm, my concentration was interrupted by music floating through the wall that separated my bedroom from my brothers’ bedroom, and with the music came a mind-altering realization: While I sat playing on the floor of my room, thinking my thoughts, doing my thing, my brothers were in the next room listening to music, thinking their thoughts, and doing whatever it was they were doing.
It was a weird, out-of-body moment, a new awareness that this was not my world with all the people around me playing a specific role in it – “brother”, “Mom”, “Dad”, “teacher”. Indeed, all those people had their own world, their own thoughts and likes and dislikes. Some had been alive and thinking thoughts and doing things before I was even born!
At that moment, my egocentric understanding of life expanded. This realization didn’t diminish my feelings of self-worth – it instead made me more open to understanding others and seeing different points of view.
I have had several of these “shifts in perspective” throughout my life, moments when I understand something on a cognitive level that on its surface seems completely obvious but for a lack of recognition – like suddenly seeing both the forest and the trees.
I remember being in elementary school, my teacher quietly asking if my parents could afford to pay for the field trip to the circus, the different colored ticket I carried to the cafeteria every day for reduced-cost lunch, the food stamps and government surplus food my family qualified for – all this fed into my perception that I must be poor. By the time I was a young adult I had built a mythology on the idea that I had worked hard to overcome humble beginnings to achieve my goals.
In my mid-twenties, I interned in an urban school in a section of the city known for socioeconomic challenges.
A moment of clarity came as I tutored a third grader who was reading at a first grade level. He was struggling more than usual this particular day, and he finally looked up at me and said, “Miss, my dad is in the hospital. He OD’d last night. The ambulance came and everything. I’m really worried about him.”
That was the moment I stopped congratulating myself for pulling myself up by my bootstraps.
Because I hadn’t.
Comparatively speaking, my upbringing had been idyllic, charmed even, with the opportunity to play, and be a kid, and create farms out of cardboard – without the burden of grown-up stresses.
Admitting this fact did not diminish the pride I had in my accomplishments – it instead made me more aware of disparity and how vastly different life experiences can be.
And here again, my son and his diagnosis of autism have pushed me out of my zone of comfort into this alternate universe and an entire community I previously never knew existed, a community familiar with struggle and need.
Autism does not discriminate. The workshops, seminars, and support groups I’ve attended are a mix of people of all races, ethnicities, religions, and social classes. We share. We listen. We empathize. Our commonality is that we are all parents of children with special needs, however each of us brings our own history, our own unique personalities, talents, and challenges.
Beyond statistics and numbers, beyond stereotypes – Each of us is a story.
A few months after our son was diagnosed with autism, my husband was laid off from his job. It was 2011 and “The Great Recession” was in full swing, so our story was not unique. But then again – our story WAS unique. The emotions, the fears, and the complications that enhanced them were very much our own.
After my husband found another job and the intense stress and uncertainty subsided, I became active in social media again, only to be confronted by a barrage of memes and comments aimed at shaming the poor, the unemployed, and anyone receiving assistance from the government, despite it being a time of great need. I pushed back, not just in defense of myself but in defense of all those nameless, faceless people comprising the statistics and stereotypes.
Because the people posting these memes were my friends, they responded apologetically – of course they didn’t mean me. But I understood – they didn’t mean me only because they knew me.
To anyone who didn’t know me I was part of those statistics, recently but also when I was a child. So, too, was the father suffering from addiction and his son who loved him, the struggling parents in my support groups, and even my son with his special needs – all trees in this giant forest.
It seemed on the surface to be so obvious but for the lack of recognition: To have the complexities of each human life reduced to a number or assigned a stereotype, was to deny each unique history, each individual story.
Understanding this on a more global level does not solve the problems of the world nor deny their existence – but it has given me the perspective to view social issues through compassionate eyes, to dig deeper even when my first reaction is anger or judgment.
I’ll admit, I sometimes find this level of awareness overwhelming. So much suffering and need; so much inequity and injustice. It would be easier to retreat to a place of safety, ignoring the complexities of problems by dismissing them with sweeping statements of condemnation.
In an increasingly cynical age, when compassion is seen as naivety and pithy clichés seem to have lost their pith, it takes a surprising amount of courage to listen to the stories told by trees in a giant forest.
But I will listen, and I will continue to challenge perceptions with those stories in the hope that others might catch a glimpse of the world from another perspective… and maybe even be convinced to stay and share some stories of their own.