Recently, some friends and I met to make a decision together. Our process includes providing a respectful space for each person to share thoughts, feelings, and fears about any group decision, and ultimately to go forward with a project, or to abandon it. The decision had been several months in the making, and there were several strong arguments going in both directions. It was far from certain what the final result would be.
During this discussion, a friend shared something that was later explained to me as a metaphor, but I’d rather believe it to be metonymic, a way of using language that (rather magically) substitutes a part for a whole. Anyway, my friend said that when he was a boy, he’d taken riding lessons, and in the process of learning to ride, he’d learned to teach a horse to carry him across a fence. (with apologies to this friend, whose words I’ve assumed with all kinds of narrative abandon)
“When jumping a horse,” he told us, “we were taught that the first thing over the fence should be our own heart, and that’s what the horse would follow. And if we didn’t – if our attention was off, or our hearts were afraid – that the horse would know it, balk at the fence, and send us flying.
“What I’m saying is that there’re always conditions that come along with any decision that you make, whether it’s paperwork you’d rather not do, people you’d rather not spend time with, detailed work you dislike, or just plain grunt work that feels like a waste of time. If we do this, we need to be prepared to go forward into all the work it’s going to take with our whole hearts. If we don’t – if we’re not ready for meeting with expensive lawyers, with following up on phone calls, on emails, with reading through this paperwork with a fine-tooth comb – it’s not going to be worth it.”
After the discussion ended, we took a vote. In spite of the possibility of sorely-needed financial profit that might have come from agreeing to the proposed project, we decided against it. Because, we realized, our hearts were not there; and ultimately, without a heart-felt commitment, none of us were prepared to take on the remainder of the work.
It’s easier to say no. To say yes is to say “Yes, I’m willing to throw my heart over this fence, right here, right now.” It involves a level of commitment and vulnerability that’s often painful to contemplate. I do say yes, of course, like most of us do. But the yes’s I say, on a regular basis, aren’t yes’s that involve heart at all. They’re agreements: yes, this is something that I’m mentally and physically able to do. Which is why, when I need to say no, I plead incapability – of time, or attention – rather than of heart.
I’m not good at making decisions. I come from a long tradition of people for whom “making do” is a virtue. As much as I love to cook, my favorite food is leftovers. I hate to plan a meal – I’d much rather start with what’s in season or on sale. I don’t shop for new clothes, but at thrift stores where my selections are limited to the few clothes that might fit. But recently I made a decision that, at least from outside appearances, seems to be a big one. I quit my job.
The professional work I’ve done within the autism community for the past fifteen years has been work that I never sought out, didn’t actively apply for, and for which I never interviewed. I didn’t throw my heart over the fence before starting the work; in fact, I approached the job with misgivings and trepidation. Yet it’s been the most rewarding work of my life, work that I believed I could happily do for the remainder of my working days. So why, then, on the first of November, did I leave?
Because at some point, I committed my heart to this work I was doing. I committed to meeting people – adults, children, teenagers – where they were, in a way that made sense to them. I committed to a way of understanding other people that wasn’t based on tests or standardized data, but on carefully individualized observations made over time. I committed to understanding social relationship and communication as a mutual process, not an individual impairment. And, even though some of the changes that are being made in the autism field are likely to be good ones, based in scholarly research and a broader understanding of autism, my heart wasn’t in the new more standardized way of understanding. I couldn’t muster it there.
I can’t say I know how my heart was thrown. There have been many times when I’d rather it hadn’t been. I miss having health insurance. I miss my co-workers, my office. The thing about throwing one’s heart over the fence is that it’s not, entirely, a mental decision, but, I believe, an act of grace. I can’t decide where my heart might be thrown; I can only follow.