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Thinking Out Loud

When Love is Just the First Step

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 05, 2015
When Love is Just the First StepHow do we love well the people we love best?

This is not a problem of logic, but of the heart.

How do we go about extending to those closest to us the freedom (which is essential to love) that we extend to strangers? This is an especially urgent question when the persons who are closest to us either resist our love or insist, for whatever reasons, to chart a course in life utterly different from that which we have charted. Their very being may seem to call into question our identity and values. Their way of life may require us to reorient our lives, or adjust to them, or learn to live with ideas that we had never previously considered.

I tend to approach this question, at least partially and at least initially, through my head, by thinking about it. For example, I’ve been mulling over a line from Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death ever since I first read that book in 1996. Derrida used the phrase as the title of the last chapter: “Tout autre est tout autre,” which can be translated, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other.” The phrase has haunted me since I first read it.

We can surely feel the truth of these words as we walk along the busy sidewalk of any urban street. Faces turned down avoiding eye contact, glancing up only occasionally at others who remain tenaciously (every bit) the other. It is, in some sense, easy to extend the freedom of difference to the people we casually meet. But what about those closest to us? What about our children?

For the last two years, I have been carrying around a book that deals specifically with this question. I have read it slowly. A chapter here and there. Then I will lay the book aside, only to pick it up again to read more. I have recommended the book to some friends, and I keep meaning to write an essay about it. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, beautiful and moving, disturbing and ultimately providing a rich potential for hope though not without a lot of tears. The phrase, “Every other (one) is every (bit) other,” might well serve as its epigraph.

The book is Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (New York: Scribner, 2012). In clinical language, you might say that this is a book about horizontal identities (as opposed to vertical, identities), the way in which some people find meaning, community and a sense of belonging (identity) primarily in relation to people other than their parents and blood relations. It is a book about what this means to the children themselves and also what it means to their parents and siblings. The book’s chapters explore the experiences of parents and children with deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, rape and crime.

Andrew Solomon, whose highly respected previous book was The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Scribner, 2001) is a lecturer in psychiatry at Weill-Cornell Medical College and is founder of the Solomon Research Fellowships in LGBT Studies at Yale University. Solomon explores the world of horizontal identity with sensitivity and grace. He refuses to stand above or outside the subject matter he explores, allowing his own experience as a gay man to illuminate his consciousness of the experience of others, including his own parents.

The reason it has taken me two years to bring my reflections to the virtual page is because Far from the Tree is utterly impossible to summarize and encapsulate. It defies categorization. The book itself remains “every (bit) other” even while it invites its readers to do more than just read; but also to pause, to listen, and to learn.

Every reader will have his or her own experiences with this book. Every reader will enter the book’s pages from a different angle and will find in its pages experiences and perspectives that will touch him or her differently. I read it as a child and as a brother. But, perhaps, it touched me most deeply as a parent. I recommend the book wholeheartedly, though the book is not for the fainthearted.

Chapter four, “Down Syndrome,” in particular has stayed with me. The chapter opens by telling the modern fable, “Welcome To Holland,” written by Emily Perl Kingsley in 1987. You may well have heard the story before. It has been reprinted and anthologized countless times and made its way into song. Rather than try to summarize the “fable,” I shall simply share it in full.
Welcome To Holland
Emily Perl Kingsley

©1987 by Emily Perl Kingsley. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted by permission of the author.

I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability - to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It's like this......

When you're going to have a baby, it's like planning a fabulous vacation trip - to Italy.  You buy a bunch of guide books and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It's all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, "Welcome to Holland."

"Holland?!?" you say. "What do you mean Holland?? I signed up for Italy! I'm supposed to be in Italy. All my life I've dreamed of going to Italy."

But there's been a change in the flight plan. They've landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven't taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It's just a different place.

So you must go out and buy new guide books. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It's slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you've been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around.... and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills....and Holland has tulips. Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away... because the loss of that dream is a very very significant loss.

But... if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

To some degree, every love in life lands us in Holland, no matter where we thought we were going when we boarded the plane. It is just that some Hollands are a bigger surprise than others. The trick, if there is a trick, is to learn to appreciate the reality on the ground rather than to pine for another destination.

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