“You can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force.”
I was fortunate enough to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a fairly young age. So as far back as I can remember, I have had the knowledge tucked away somewhere in the back of my mind that I was different and that I had certain problems to deal with that other kids my age maybe didn’t. But I think having that knowledge early, while some children might have found it stifling, I found it liberating – I knew what the barrier was, and I knew I wanted to break it, and continue to break it. As I grew older, each year I became better and better at breaking that barrier, at breaking through that 4th wall between me and other humans beings. Just like a high jumper or a pole vaulter, I was pushing myself just a little bit more each time – I would “hang out” with kids after classes, I participated in high school Cross Country, I auditioned for a play in high school and got cast and continued to audition for future plays. Eventually, I was at the point where I was even going to “parties” with some of these kids, although I could only manage that in small doses.
Then I went to college. That was a huge stepping stone and, in some ways, it set me back a bit. It was almost like I had to take a couple hundred steps back, reassess the situation, remember to breathe, and continue forward again. As difficult as it was and as daunting as college was, I didn’t let the new environment completely shake me for too long. I went back to work, like an athlete, setting the bar a little higher each time, continuing to break my previous records one by one.
But perhaps one of the key secrets to this success was learning empathy. As a child I was told by doctors, dictionaries, and the DSM IV that empathy was a skill I lacked. That being a kid “suffering” from Asperger’s Syndrome, I would never be able to connect with other humans the way “normal” people do. And I think, deep down in my heart, I was shouting (if you will excuse my language): “fuck that!” I was not going to let a diagnosis stop me from accomplishing my dreams. So I went to work. I learned. Through experience and study and hard work I learned human behavior, a process most neuro-typical children learn automatically and perhaps take for granted. I became so devoted to this study that, there came a point I realized, where I seemed to be more interested in the welfare of those around me than most kids my age. Because I had to study human behavior and overcompensate for my inherent lack of empathy, I had surpassed my age group. It was like an average or below average student in a class room of intelligent but lazy children. If they cruised and if he committed, I mean absolutely committed, to getting that “A” on his world history exam, he could probably get a better mark than them in the end.
But the wonderful thing about learning this human behavior was that after a while, I didn’t have to try nearly as hard. Instead of turning the human experience and all of human emotion into a purely logical process and analysis and application, something wonderful happened – empathy. True, heart-felt, honest to goodness empathy. Suddenly, I no longer had to pretend I cared about someone if I asked them how they were feeling – I did actually care. I cared so much that I would ask follow-up questions or offer to help in any reasonable way I could. And if someone was visibly in anguish, I would continue to ask how someone was feeling long after everyone else might have stopped caring.
I learned, in the words of Tacitus, that “you can accomplish by kindness what you cannot by force.” By trying so hard for so long, the process of empathy slowly became natural, perhaps even more so than the average person. Force of will and mind and sheer energy could only take me so far though, before I had to learn the power of kindness and what it can accomplish. I had learned (and am continuing to learn) empathy, perhaps the greatest gift a human being can give and one of the most delightful to receive.