In school, you are first taught a lesson and then tested. But in life, you are tested first, and THEN taught a lesson.
I have read that it takes FIVE positive thoughts or incidents to offset only ONE that is negative. Our brains have a bias toward the negative. I don’t know why, but suspect that it might be a way of reinforcing lessons that are learned the hard way.
This presents a daily struggle for most people. It seems that it might be affecting me worse, thanks to my ASD.
ARE THE IDEAS OF GOOD AND BAD AN ILLUSION?
Many philosophers have suggested this over the course of human history. The Stoic philosophers seem to suggest that it is important to remove the judgment of “good and bad” from our life’s experiences.
Alan Watts has also suggested the same. I learned from him the story of the Chinese farmer, and I’ve told it many times. This time, you can hear it in his own words, his own voice, and with some neat animation.
It is an interesting notion; the idea of removing these judgments from events that occur. But is it realistic?
THE 9/11 PROBLEM
Shortly before and after the 9/11 attacks, I was working for a commercial real estate firm. One of the brokers kept a sign on her desk, supposedly to inspire positivity.
“You always have a choice.”
My first thought was about 9/11 and choice. I began to think of the people stuck on the upper floors. Did they have a choice? I suppose one could suggest that they chose between staying in the building and burning to death, or jumping out and accepting their fate before they hit the ground.
Choice doesn’t always mean a choice between the good and the bad. Sometimes a situation is shrouded in the illusion of choice.
Maybe the choice is not within the actions themselves, but rather only with regard to how you feel about it. Would it be fair to suggest that we Americans merely choose to view the 9/11 attacks as being bad?
Would it be insane to suggest that anything good came from this?
Could anyone on the receiving end of the 9/11 attacks “choose” to feel good about it? How?
I call this “The 9/11 Problem,” because it’s a situation where I struggle to find the silver lining.
Yes, it brought out the good in some people and brought some communities together. It also inspired the opposite. And then there’s the problem of two destroyed buildings, rubble, chaos, and 3,000+ people dead.
This problem also raises an important question for me. Do I REALLY, truly have a choice in how I feel about things?
Maybe? Kind of? Sorta? Possibly?
CHOICE COMES AFTER YOU ALREADY FEEL
Your significant other walks into the room and lets you know that they are done with you and the relationship. Right away, you feel sad, angry, confused, and more.
Looks like you didn’t have much of a choice there. It’s not like the other person warned you about what they were going to say and then gave you proper instruction on how to best prepare for the choice that was coming up.
By the time you reach a place where you make a choice, you’ve already experienced the feeling.
CHOICE IS NOT ABOUT GOOD OR BAD
What I have written up to now represents how I felt in the past about the idea that we can choose how we feel. The problem with this is that it was focused on the wrong part.
The idea is slightly wrong.
The “choice” is actually about how you’ll allow your emotions to manifest, how these emotions affect you, and how you allow that impact to manifest internally and externally.
ANALYZING THE CHINESE FARMER’S SITUATION
Let’s get back to the Chinese farmer for a minute, with his son who suffered the broken leg.
After watching the video and hearing the story, notice that the focus is NOT on how the son felt about his broken leg. Rather, it was about how the farmer felt about the situation.
Sure, the farmer did not suffer a broken leg, so he did not have to deal with the pain. He did, however, temporarily lose a farm worker. There is a financial angle to this, as well as the personal angle of the victim being his son. This illustrates how the farmer is not consequence-free or feelings-free from this situation.
Now that we understand the farmer’s skin in the game, and we know how he responded to this, let’s consider a slightly different set of players before we continue.
IF MY DAD WERE THE CHINESE FARMER
Considering the idea that my father would be the Chinese farmer, and I would be the son with a broken leg, I can tell you that his reaction would NOT be the same as the Chinese farmer in the story.
First, he would get very angry. Lots of swearing and threatening postures would be the first things to surface. He would have suggested that I was stupid for “messing with” those wild horses in the first place. His voice would get louder. He would complain about the things I wouldn’t be able to work on for a while because of my broken leg.
Basically, he’d be flipping out.
RESPONDING vs. REACTING
As you can tell, how my own dad would have handled this would have been WAY different from how the Chinese farmer handled it.
Notice that I referred to how my dad would “react,” and also referred to how the Chinese farmer would “respond.” There is a major difference bewteen responding and reacting.
Reacting is where a person allows their emotions to overcome them and rule their current state of mind in a given situation. This is bound to happen when someone is not capable of regulating their own emotions.
Reactions typically happen very quickly, and without much thought. Something happens or something is said, and the next thing you know Dad is flying off the handle.
For many people, reacting feels natural. After all, it takes absolutely NO thought or effort at all. Just feel what you feel and let it wash over you and the entire situation.
By comparison, responding involves another step. The trick is that it needs to be inserted between the emotion happening and the typical reaction.
Based on the thoughts and behaviors of the Chinese farmer, it would be safe to assume that he was first focused on helping his son. Some would suggest that this is instinctual, but that is not always the case when someone allows their feelings to run amok.
To the Chinese farmer, this wasn’t a good or bad event. Rather, it was a situation that required his immediate attention, focus, and energy. Instead of expending energy ranting and putting on an embarrassing show for anyone to see or hear, he focused on what he needed to do.
He did not judge the situation. He just responded appropriately.
But that’s just in regard to responding to the situation. The Chinese farmer also had to respond to his own emotions. He may have felt fear or panic upon seeing this happen or hearing about it.
But something happened almost immediately after he experienced these feelings. He paused and acknowledged his feelings. He could do this quietly in his own mind. He could say it to himself. He could say it to someone else.
“Oh no! It seems that my son is in trouble. Right now I am feeling anxiety and fear.”
Acknowledge those negative feelings. Say hello to them. Pause to greet them. After all, you knew that they’d show up eventually. Then, metaphorically excuse yourself from their presence because you’ve got important things happening that require your immediate attention.
Instead of reacting to these feelings and allowing them to control your words and behaviors, he was responding to the feelings by taking a moment to acknowledge them.
PROBLEMS WITH THESE TWO MODES
The problem with reaction is that giving into this mode is way too easy. It can feel justified. And it might feel good in the moment to be utterly outraged and to express that outrage for all to see.
Conversely, the problem with responding is that it takes effort and focused energy. Everything was fine a second ago, and now this. It’s a change of emotion, a change of situation, and a change of trajectory.
These changes do not sit well with an Autistic brain, ever. Considering that the energy it takes for a neurodivergent person like me to engage in niceties [i.e., “Hello, how are you?”], which is equivalent to the energy expended by a neurotypical person when they are taking a final exam, it becomes more painfully obvious that a situation like this could very well require a major energy burst.
The problem is that I may be in a situation where I simply do not have the energy. This is when an Autistic melt-down is most likely to happen.
Only recently have I known this AND recognized it as an issue. What to do about it is a completely separate-yet-related problem.
Allowing the reaction is easy. The negative energy was flowing in that direction anyway. It is always easier to go with the flow of the river.
Engaging the response, on the other hand, involves feeling the emotion, pausing, thinking, acknowledging, and then regulating. This can be done, assuming that the situation allows for it. When a boss is yelling at you, it can be difficult to regulate emotions for Autistic people.
This points back to the practice of allowing judgment to enter the picture.
AN EXAMPLE OF JUDGMENT
I’ve had a problem for my entire life, where I will emotionally disregulate when words are used to suggest that something horrible is about to happen.
One of my “triggers” at work involves a few phrases that a boss will often use.
“Hey, we need to have a chat. Got a minute?”
Whether it’s just one of these phrases or both together, this causes me a great problem. My last boss noticed it when he said these words to me, and I was visibly shaken, with a wobbly voice and everythign.
He got upset. “You need to do something and get a handle on that.”
My response to him was to suggest that he needs to find a better way to start difficult conversations that doesn’t involve signaling that there is a problem.
You can guess who won in that conversation.
When a boss says this phrase, it invokes the sensation of fear. A list of chain reactions happens. How will I pay my bills? How will I pay my child support? How will I find another job? I’ll end up in jail and lose everything if I can’t pay my support in full and on time. OH NO!!!!!!
What it boils down to is that this phrase is judged as being negative. Makes sense. After all, it’s a threat on my life, via my livelihood. This is why it sets off a major chain reaction of negative emotions. And when your life is threatened, reacting is something that easily happens.
It seems that dropping this judgment is easier said than done, by leaps and bounds. How does one dispose of judgment with something like this?
I do wish that I had an answer for that.
ACCEPTING WHAT I CANNOT CONTROL OR CHANGE
I could not change what my boss said or how he said it. I also could not change what he intended to do. When a boss says something like this, their mind is already made up and it cannot be changed.
There was nothing I could do to change anything about that situation. I had as much control over my boss as the Chinese farmer had over the wild horse.
I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can’t avoid it.
And yet, here I am, getting very upset over it.
Getting upset also does not fix anything. It also tends to make things worse.
WHAT CAN I CONTROL?
I can’t even control how I feel when certain things happen. So what can I control?
The trick is to learn to respond instead of react. Reacting is a loss of control. But a response is more controlled.
Reigning in my reactions and replacing them with responses might be the only thing that I have any control over. Exercising this type of control is very difficult for those of us who are Autistic.
I don’t want to call it impossible. Again, the difficult in this for Autistic people revolves around the energy that it would take to deal with this unforeseen statement or event.
I’m busy exerting FINAL EXAM levels of energy into basic things that people do automatically and take for granted, and then THIS shows up.
With energy depleted and a change in situation, what are the chances that I can pull it off by responding instead of reacting?
I’d say the chances are slim. This is one of many reasons why Autism is considered a disability. Because even when we KNOW what is required and we know WHAT to do, we may very well find ourselves in a situation where our energy is depleted, our defenses are low, and emotional disregulation will occur.
IN THE END
Knowing what to do in a situation is a part of the battle. For some, it might be the biggest part. For me, as an Autistic adult, knowing what to do is relatively easy, when compared to the daunting task of instantly finding the energy required to engage this remedy.
Make no mistake about it. Emotions show up very fast. Engaging a response requires speed, discretion, and a great deal of energy.
Neurotypicals are quick to recommend the “normal” cures. Some might even tell me what I already know, without acknowledging the heart of my neurodivergent issue, thereby completely missing the point.
The problem is NOT that I have no idea of what to do. Rather, the problem is that I cannot find the energy resources required to make this happen.
I know that the Chinese farmer did NOT get angry with his son over his broken leg, or the manpower and money that ended up being lost by this event. I also know that it would have solved nothing, and even made things worse, had he reacted instead of responding. He didn’t scream or get enraged by it all.
Although it is not stated in the story, I would be willing to guess that the Chinese farmer is a neurotypical person. He may have been created for the story by a neurotypical author. The story may very well be neurotypical allegory designed to guide the neurotypical mind through a neurotypical existence.
None of this is an excuse. It is an explanation. If it were an excuse, then an essential element would involve me not wanting to try to fix anything.
This raises very important questions.
“Is my lack of energy to summon the energy to form a response something that is outside of my control? If it is outside of my control, then why am I worrying about it? Why can’t I accept it as it is and move on? Why is the world so interested in controlling me?
If I allow my Autism to impact my behaviors, and I do not try, then I would be declaring my Autism as an excuse.
If I am trying to fix something, and my Autism is getting in the way, then it is an explanation.
And if I am trying to fix something when I have no control over it, then this would be called crazy.
If I look at this without the judgment of “good” or “bad,” is there really anything that I need to do? Why is reacting bad and responding good?
No doubt, this is an issue that is complicated enough for the neurotypical person. Being Autistic and attempting to deal with something of this magnitude can often times feel like a fool’s errand.
Reaction? Response? On which side of the fence will I fall? Can I achieve this? Will it make a difference? Does the fence even exist?
I guess we are just going to have to find out.
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