“If you understand, things are just as they are… If you do not understand, things are just as they are.”
~ Zen saying
Last weekend I met Matthew. Matthew is a 13 year-old boy with special needs whom I’ve recently started working with in a weekly session. Having been ill the week before, Matthew came in that Saturday afternoon sporting a runny nose, blowing onto a piece of tissue paper we’d given him every few minutes.
During one of the sessions in which I helped guide him, Matthew was learning how to lace his shoes for the first time.
So I watched as Matthew effortfully weaved in the white lace through one eyelet after another under his therapist’s guidance, each step pausing to figure out whether to put the lace from under or over, whether it should go on an eyelet on one side or the other.
At the sight of that I couldn’t help to hold myself back from shedding a tear. Partly because working with Matthew inevitably reminded me of being with my little sister, who herself is a child with special needs of Matthew’s age; and partly because for someone with a theoretical lack of ability to maintain attention, there seemed to be almost nothing else that Matthew was more focused on than that one shoe, those eyelets and that lace.
It took him a little over 15 minutes, with help, to get both shoes laced and tied.
Needless to say it was no easy task. And having a job that requires dealing with children on a daily basis, I’d expected to hear familiar sounds of frustration like, “But I just can’t do it..”, or “It’s too hard..”, or “But I’m sick, I can’t concentrate..”
Instead, whenever Matthew made a mistake, he’d simply say, “Oops”, or “Oh, right” when I probed him to remember what his next step should be. He would then go on. Nothing more, nothing less.
His eyes only gazed away a few times, when signaling that he needed another tissue to blow his nose with or turning to see the windows if he heard footsteps heading towards the classroom.
And what suddenly caught me is this:
To Matthew, lacing his shoes was difficult not because he was sick, or because he doesn’t yet have well-developed fine motor skills, or because of his disability in general (which he has come to be well aware of).
Lacing his shoes was difficult simply because he could not yet figure out which eyelet to put the lace through next, because he couldn’t remember whether to weave the lace from over and under. Lacing his shoes was difficult simply because he was only learning how to.
As I was recalling those images on my way home, I was reminded of the night I called a good friend of mine in the middle of the night crying having just had a long-winded argument with my parents.
Having just suddenly found myself retracing the last few years of my life and connecting them all in my head back to the disagreement I just had; what my parents did several years ago, about the choice I made several months ago, and about just the way I was born over 20 years ago.
Having just suddenly seen my whole life yet once more as one long piece of thread that has quickly snowballed into one giant tangled wool that I couldn’t undo.
To all that my friend only said to me what someone else had said to him when he found himself where I was,
“Tya, stop looking at your life as a story. For once, just see it as it is.”
And just like that, the voices in my head that had been long trained to say “But that’s just how I am..”, “But I had no choice..”, and “But people don’t change..” were immediately silenced.
Because at that moment, that one disagreement that night became just that, that disagreement that night. Nothing more, nothing less.
While I don’t naively deny that some problems do have their roots in the past and many other static factors, choosing to connect all our present troubles to events that cannot or can no longer be changed is often just a convenient way of positioning ourselves as a victim of our own situation, and most importantly neglecting the urgency of working towards a practical solution.
Imagine if Matthew were to connect all the learning difficulties he’s having to his disability rather than to the immediate challenges of his present task, how it wouldn’t get him very far. Not in a necessary amount of time.
So these days, I let those images, and my friend’s words, become a kind of mental pair of scissors that I always keep in my cognitive toolbox. Anytime that long thread is about to roll downhill and form a giant tangled mess of a wool ball, I take its front end and cut it at length as necessary.
And for once, examine it just as that. That one small piece of knotted thread. Nothing more, nothing less.