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  • Writer's pictureBecky Aten (they/she)

A love note to a harsh world

Updated: Jul 3

Whether you are more aligned with neurodivergent or neurotypical ways of being, what comes next will take some unexpected turns, and may be triggering to read for some; please pause for a breath when you need one and I encourage you to read all the way to the end where we'll come to a place of unity of perspectives and experiences.


Of the vast universe of thoughts, wonderings, and awes that I don’t share, or haven’t yet shared, one of the most pervasive and poignant is why society is so readily accepting of rules and agreements that are so wholly unnatural as to exclude the participation of so many vibrant, gentle, and compassionate human beings who don’t “see” the world the way everyone else sees, and who prioritize happiness and safety over conformity within a harmful system of rigid expectations and hierarchical messages of worth. These people I’m thinking of are my neurokin, the sensitive, neurodivergent souls fighting for their own survival, for social justice, for climate justice, and for love to win out over fear.


So much good comes from connecting with folks who are different from us, but when it comes to the Neurodivergent community, it often seems like most people won’t slow down to match our pace, or quiet down to match our vibrations, or even try to see the world from our perspective. They are averse to discomfort and have already agreed on what’s right, good, and of value, and it’s whatever will help them to get where they’re going in the “land of more” (more money, more property, more praise, more friends, more followers, more offspring… etc.). Neurodivergent folks, disabled folks, and others whose needs inconvenience their forward movement on this path are rarely worth consideration and certainly not worth making space for as a companion on the journey.


It breaks my heart, and stirs a quiet rage. 


I wonder: Who are “they,” these oppressive creators of environments, systems, and processes that harden the neurotypical world against granting access to anyone who doesn’t think, feel, move, connect, or express love like they do? Why is the society they designed so readily accepting of this destination to the “land of more” that is so clearly counter-evolutionary, antisocial, and unsustainable? Why is this culture so willing to sacrifice those of us with experiences that don’t fit within the existing systems, while declaring that this isn’t so, and that they are fighting against the very world they are insistent upon preserving by every unexamined deed?


Who do I bring this fight to?


At first, I looked for an answer to these questions by seeking the source of blame for my even having to ask, and in respect to my autistic friends, I found an easy target within the autism industrial complex. Here is an inherently ableist, colonial, and capitalist machine built upon the pathology paradigm and medical model of disability, that feeds on insecurities about the functioning of our nervous system, our shame about being different, and the implications of autism as an epidemic that is cause for alarm and action. This must be what’s at the root of the suffering of my community, and a worthy opponent to approach in battle, and so I thought I had a decent solution for where to place my wrath.


Nope.


As it turns out, the enemy is elusive if it even exists at all. Organizations operating within this system that profits off of the status quo tend to deny their participation and disguise their intentions through virtue signaling and “diversity-washing.” This includes the appropriation of language and concepts coined within the Neurodivergent community, starting with the word “neurodiversity” itself, then narrowing the definition of who gets to call themselves neurodivergent, and sometimes even distorting what “neurodiversity-affirming” care looks like to fit what they are already doing and avoid the disruption of real change. They do this so well and so unintentionally that the very people who keep these organizational machines running are unaware of the harm they are perpetuating, or who they are actually serving. These are generous people who believe wholeheartedly in the work they are doing and have little reason or opportunity to question whether it is having the desired effect. How do you stop an evil machine run by lovely people who have the best of intentions? If I take these organizations to battle, I’m likely to only cause more harm to the victims; there are no enemies there.


What can I do with my fury? What can you do with yours?


There is no scarcity of reason for any of us to be overwhelmed by resentment and indignation. I witness so many of my neurodivergent friends pushed to the margins, denied autonomy, infantilized, pitied, and systematically isolated while being offered a pittance of a window into “full society” through segregated, underfunded, and understaffed programs that represent a “be grateful for what you get” attitude, imposed on us by people who would probably not be bothered to notice our existence except for the fact that someone they love is bothered, and so because they think they can help to save us, they must. Rarely is there consideration for whether they should.


And, as relatable as all of the above might be to those of you who’ve been disillusioned by the limited resources offered to alleviate your own isolation and suffering, none of it is really even true, at least, not at an individual level.


“People who would probably not be bothered to notice us” doesn’t refer to you, or any neurotypical reader, or your neurotypical loved ones, or or any other singular human being, really; it refers to an ideal set of expectations that is upheld by the invisible agreement of “be normal or else, but seem inclusive to those who aren't.” In the creation of these expectations, we find unhelpful and reductive tropes like the “autism mom” who fights for her autistic child to be educated, happy, safe, and connected by identifying with a diagnosis that isn’t her own; a sort of backhanded attempt at inclusion by speaking over and for those who aren’t considered competent to speak for ourselves, despite having a whole universe of thoughts we wish to express. I’ve been tempted to blame the “autism mom” for her part in the marginalization and oppression of her own offspring, but it turns out that she isn’t real, either, at least, not at an individual level.


I often imagine that there is an army of self-proclaimed "autism moms" and “allies” advocating on our behalf, receiving accolades for their heroic fight amongst a battleground of fellow martyrs who over-identify with the suffering of people living an experience that isn’t their own. And while these gladiators sacrifice their own well-being in the name of “autism awareness” or “fighting stigma,” their colleagues with financial means can throw money from a distance to the cheers of capitalism, and not worry about whose pockets it lands in, because they are already distracted by the business of owning more than they can use, more than they can even care for, and figuring out how they can accumulate more. This conflated world I imagine seems so REAL, and it might be borne from seeds of truth, but just as the “autism mom” doesn’t really exist, neither does the “performative ally,” not really, at least, not on an individual level.


I’ve come to recognize, through a million little agonizing realizations and individual connections, that no person is so confined or basic for any of the above to be an accurate representation of their wholeness. “Autism moms” and “performative allies” and "operators of evil machines” are easy illusions that help me make sense of the world, but have no value in improving it. Each one of us is having a complete human experience, and it’s only distance and myopia that prevents us from seeing the myriad facets of one another's identities, loves, joys, traumas, and passions. We see actions, we make assumptions, and we paint an image that is as true to reality as a two-dimensional stick figure drawing of me or you. We “other” them and channel our anger towards them, and it turns out that there is no “them,” and all of that toxic build-up remains ours with nowhere to put it.


Where is the enemy, then?


Over and over again, I fail to find the source of blame, and I’m frustrated as hell by where to funnel all of my disgust. My only answer for “why things are the way they are” and "who is to blame" is that these are meaningless questions. They are the way they are because of the way they are and I'm in no position to pass judgment on those who, like me, are angry and hurting and doing the best they can. As for the people I thought were the enemy... well, in one way or another I've been all of them and more to someone else. I am obliged to acknowledge that in this way, my own biases and expectations are perpetuating oppressive experiences within my community when they could be doing the opposite.


In accepting this anticlimactic actuality, I’m compelled to ask a different question: are things really the way that they seem? And I have to say that no, they are not, and there is no one I can blame, so there is no one at whom I can direct the righteous injustice I feel about the way of it. I’m left with the choice to keep holding on to the idea that society isn’t accepting of neurodivergent folks and we don't belong in this world, or to move forward in a society that is open and loving and ready to change, and by believing it to be so and participating in that reality, perhaps it will become so for others, too.


What I am saying is this: My reality is not as it seems. There are no evil figureheads orchestrating my suffering, neurotypical or otherwise, and there is no one coming to save me. The world may feel harsh, but it isn't only harsh, and knowing this intellectually doesn't mean it's easy to embody it.


And so I offer you this uncomfortable truth, as I see it… you are not to blame for the way things are in the world, and neither are your parents, your teachers, your neighbors, your elected officials, your ancestors, or any other person, AND your suffering and indignation are no less valid for not having a singular origin that you can point to. Anger and frustration are good, and can be transformed, channeled, and magicked to shine lights into the dark, hidden corners of society and open our collective eyes to a brighter world full of helpers and healers and beautifully complex human beings who share in our vision of liberation. All of this can start with a breath, and a resolve to disrupt the way things are by embracing your own differences and letting go of the unhelpful assumptions, rules, and agreements that hold you back from shining your light.


I don’t deny that this all sounds both defeatist and idealist, and overly simplistic; if it does to you, too, know that it’s only due to a failure of language to express and give form to the ineffable. This is the power of yoga: it is possible to transform angry, toxic energy and heal from the damage it causes without passing blame and unleashing righteous indignation all over the world we seek to improve. It doesn’t happen by wishing it to be so; it happens through quiet and steady practice in self-study, and through getting curious about a perspective that is both wider and more detailed that what we think we’re capable of comprehending, and that allows for humanity to be witnessed in its messy, horrible, and beautiful fullness with a relinquishing of hate and opening to love.


Suffering begets suffering, and it's unhelpful to pretend otherwise. The same is also true for joy, compassion, love, and acceptance. This I believe, and yet, it wouldn't be right or wise for me to tell anyone else how to think or feel, or what to do with their emotions. I have to accept, for myself only, that the next step forward is to harness the tornado of my rage, fury, and wrath, and let it destroy the harsh reality that generated it in the first place. Thus demolished, I have fertile ground from which to begin rebuilding a worldview in which all of us belong, and can thrive.


If you would like to experience that first step with me, please join me for this brief lovingkindness practice:


Invitation to rest your hands on your heart, or bring awareness to your heart center. Big breath in, smooth steady exhale out. Read these words out loud or silently in your mind:


May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be at peace. May I know the joy of being alive.


May all beings be happy. May all beings be safe. May all beings be at peace. May all beings know the joy of being alive.


Big breath in, smooth steady exhale out.


I'm so glad you're on this planet with me; carry on with being your amazing self.


Image description: a photo of a button of gentle green moss growing on a small birch branch that's lying on a brown leaf-covered forest floor.
A photo of a button of gentle green moss growing on a small birch branch that's lying on a brown leaf-covered forest floor.

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