Marigolds graced the front walkway of our second house. They are bright flowers that light up the world, and that’s just what we wanted in our garden. And they attracted bees. Lots of ’em. People walking to our door had to brave a gauntlet of them. We loved the marigolds, so they stayed. And so did the bees.
Joey is both marigolds and bees. We love him, and he’s unusually emotionally connected and affectionate for a person with autism. He is a joy and delight in our lives. At the same time, autism brings stuff we’d love to do without.
One of the worst stings our family suffered was Joey’s teenage onset of grand mal seizures. The first one came with no warning, and we thought we’d watched him die right in front of us. Although Joey’s seizures are less frequent since he got past puberty’s brain chemical chaos, one will sneak up on him now and then. The big danger is a head or neck injury from a fall.
One night at home, Melissa heard a crash and rushed out of our bedroom to help Joey, only to find it wasn’t Joey down. It was me. I’d gone to help Joey dry off after his bath and slipped on water he’d splashed out of the tub. I was fine, but Joey’s reaction wasn’t what one might hope. He was laughing. I mean cracking up.
Such is life with autism. What you hope for often isn’t what you get. We put our hearts into protecting Joey from falls, but we assumed that along with his physical safety we would be rewarded with his heart’s appreciation and compassion. Instead, my dangerous tumble amused him.
So, Jesus, great gardener, any advice for enjoying my marigolds with a swarm of bees around my head? “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NIV).
Hmmph. I was hoping for a spray that makes them go away. But the bees love the marigolds as much as I do, so I suppose love will bring them right back.
The philosopher Kierkegaard said that love is like a dash or hyphen. It is always out there seeking connection. God’s description of love assumes that the connection won’t always happen quickly or easily. So there’s a need to maintain hope that it will come and to endure when it’s missing.
Autism calls for this kind of love. You don’t get what you expect. Autistic people don’t play by all the social rules the rest of us figure out. There’s very little “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo” because an autistic person is intensely directed from within, with little of the usual human reaction to the world.
Yet this can teach us to love with great depth. It challenges us to dig deep for a love that can endure without quick rewards and can “bear all things.” Of course, it can cut the other way as well. Loving an autistic kid can empty us out and exhaust us emotionally.
Yet even that presents an opportunity. It can open us up to the possibility of God, who loves us even when we don’t love in return. In a spiritual sense, we’re all “autistic.” We are self-directed, self-absorbed beings who go through life without acknowledging or even recognizing the many blessings that come our way in every moment.
So is God feeling empty and exhausted from loving us? Not at all. And in receiving God’s inexhaustible love, we find ourselves better equipped to share it with those in our care no matter their response.
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How do you love the difficult to love?
By Timothy Fountain
Timothy Fountain grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from the University of Southern California despite having no football skills. After a stint running a jackhammer and then three years in the Army, he abandoned thoughts of a legal career, attended a seminary in New York City, and devoted almost thirty years to Christian preaching. He and his wife, Melissa, and their two sons, one a lad with autism, moved to South Dakota in 2004. Tim continues a life of trial and error as a husband, dad, family caregiver, preacher and writer.