When the stork brought him, in 1975, I reacted like a nuclear bomb had exploded 50 miles away. With dread, I waited down-wind for the fallout. It never came.
Secret #1: Things are never as bad as you anticipate them to be.
Bad news often turns out good.
When unexpected, unwelcome news arrives, my reaction is to anticipate that more negative experiences will follow. I don’t have a point-of-reference that promises a positive outcome from a negative beginning. Lucky for me, I had a family who dropped everything and traveled a great distance to be with us shortly after Brian was born. By the time they arrived, various family members had already learned enough about Down syndrome to help me envision a brighter outcome.
Dads like me know that small accomplishments of special needs kids put tears in our eyes and big, goofy grins on our faces. We’ve got a million stories about the first time our kid spoke or baited a fish hook or read a sentence or, in my case, tied a shoe.
Secret #2: Small accomplishments are as joyful as big accomplishments.
Sometimes, waiting makes things better.
When Brian was 8, he was given a chance to earn a Scouting merit badge by learning to tie his shoes. His Cub Master gave him a week. Our whole family participated, working tirelessly to teach him the knotty art of “tie-man-ship.” Strangers found Brian squatting at knee level studying their shoes. While watching TV he honed in on foot scenes, squinting for hints.
Days passed and he could not seem to master it. We started to worry that he might miss the deadline. He became somber and moody. The cats avoided him.
Frustrated, he cried because he couldn’t master it. We cried with him. The day came for the scout meeting and he still sat in the same spot with a furrowed brow, fussing over the complexity of it all. We fretted over our lack of ability to teach such a simple task and spoke quietly about not taking him to the den meeting that night, to spare him, and ourselves, embarrassment.
I nearly opened my mouth to tell him that it wasn’t important for him to tie his shoes. I intended to let him off the hook. Before I did, his big sister spoke and suggested a new idea. “Brian,” she softly asked, “why don’t you try closing your eyes? Loop your laces over one another and see if you can tie your shoe in your imagination. That way, if you get up to go someplace early, before the sun comes up, you can tie your shoes in the dark.”
It worked. Brian sat, with eyes tightly shut, and tied a perfect knot on his right shoe. Without looking up, he crossed laces on his left shoe and tied another perfect knot. His mother quickly dressed him in his Scout uniform and we raced to his meeting.
Brian went first. A dozen other scouts and their families sat quietly, almost reverently, and watched in awe as 8 year-old Cub Scout Brian Lewis May, eyes closed and tongue out, earned a badge that may well have been the Congressional Medal of Honor and an Olympic Gold Medal rolled into one. Congratulatory hugs commenced and tears of joy fell.
Brian won more than a merit badge; he turned something ordinary, small and simple into a significant event, a milestone act of greatness. Brian still ties his shoes with his eyes closed, the way his big sister suggested so many years ago. Later, Brian taught his little sister to tie her shoes, and she can tie her shoes in the dark just like him.
Since then, when things get tough and I can’t find a solution to a problem, I just close my eyes and see myself solving it successfully. It’s amazing how well this process works. Try for yourself.
Secret # 3: Getting and giving hugs will eliminate stress.
Stress cripples and then it kills you.
Patience is a virtue gone missing in me. I generally go through life like a mongoose on a cobra farm; stressed to the gills. It’s a societal thing, too. Most people exist in an hour-to-hour/day-to-day setting where stress inducing problems pop up like exploding firecrackers off a common fuse. It’s harder and harder to nurture patience. Being impatient simply creates more stress.
Brian, and people like him, live stress-free lives. Well, almost stress-free. He still gets upset when we run out of ketchup. But, other than a few odd things, he’s patient and contented and, as a result, virtually stress-free.
I think I’ve discovered why. First: Down syndrome people have a natural inclination to appreciate anyone. Literally, they like everyone they come into contact with. Brian doesn’t judge other people based on their appearance or dress. He has no prejudices, none that I know of. Unfortunately, I haven’t mastered his skill to accept others unconditionally so I can’t offer much advice that will help you do the same. However, if you emulate him on the next issue, I promise that your stress level will fall faster than my 401(k) did.
Brian gives and gets lots of hugs. He’s the undisputed King of Hugs in my hug-oriented family. I started keeping count of Brian’s daily hug routine and estimate that, in a typical 24 hour period, Brian hugs approximately 7 different people, some of them absolute strangers, plus 2 cats.
I experimented with this idea of getting and giving hugs, myself. I explained to friends and clients that I wanted them to hug me every time they saw me. Pretty quickly I lost a few good accounts but, after a while, I pre-arranged enough hugs with enough people so that, like Brian, I get, on average, 7 hugs a day, plus a few free dog licks.
Amazingly, within a few days after starting, my stress level dropped dramatically. I developed a sense of well-being so strong and scary that I sought out a psychiatrist and told her about my hug therapy program.
“Something is wrong.” I ventured, “I’m a lot happier about things since I started hugging people. Don’t you think that’s weird?”
She explained it to me. “Many studies show that people who receive tactile stimulation (a shrink-term for “hugs”) are happier. Getting hugged assures us that we are loved and respected. The more love and devotion we receive, the better we feel. It’s really that simple. That’ll be $200.00. Want to come back next week?”
Secret # 4: Don’t put a lot of faith into what others think about you.
Opera singer Sarah Brightman is one of my favorite sopranos and I correlate her singing voice to that of a perfectly tuned violin. Randy Travis, the country music star, matches the low, mellow notes of a cello, also perfectly tuned.
Brian, on the other hand, sings like a leaky bagpipe and a broken tuba, combined. It’s indescribable, but that’s close.
Of course, Brian doesn’t know he can’t carry a tune. He thinks he’s ready for a world concert tour.
“My new CD, “Brian Sings Country” will be a big hit,” he proclaims.
Who am I to question this?
Brian doesn’t base his self-image on what other people think. He’s not concerned by my opinion of his singing and, simply put, he assumes he’s a great singer. In fact, he’s not just a “singer,” he’s a full-fledged song-and-dance man. To my amusement and to the chagrin of anti-dancing Baptists, Brian occasionally leaps from a restaurant booth to reincarnate Elvis when any high energy rock number spills forth from nearby speakers.
Riding with him on an elevator playing energetic background music is nothing short of electrifying.
I asked him to explain why he bursts forth in song and dance.
“It pleases me,” he chuckled. “It makes me happy to dance and sing.”
I believe him. I know it makes him happy to dance and sing when the impulse hits so I decided to follow his lead and let myself go when the urge comes. I have freed myself from the opinions of a bunch of uptight, judgmental strangers. When it strikes me, I pick up the rhythm and damn it, I dance. I don’t worry what others think. Like Brian, I assume I’m great at it, though I’m hoping that no one goes to the trouble of putting me on a video that ends up on the Internet.
This assumptive attitude rids me of the debilitating tendency to fret about what others think about me. It eliminates what I call—“double worrying.” You already spend time worrying about how you fit into the world around you, right? If you also worry about what others think about you, you’re “double-worrying” so you’re twice as likely to suck up negative vibes about yourself. What good comes from that? If you want to know what other people think of you, ask them, but try not to put a lot of stock in what you hear.
Otherwise, you’ll be wasting valuable time focusing on pleasing others when you’d be better off working to please yourself. In the great scheme of things, pleasing yourself is what makes you happy, right? Or is it?
Secret #5: “I already have what most people look for and never find.”
I once asked Brian— “Where do I find happiness?” He answered with a question of his own— “Who do you like to spend your time with?”
That’s the most important thing of all.
You belong with the person you most enjoy being with. Pleasing everyone else isn’t as important as being with the one you love the most.