As published in Mosaic 2013.
After spending most of my life trying to squish my spherical brain in a cramped, socially acceptable box, now society seems to have come to respect, even seek out, out-of-the-box thinking. As a child, I’d been forced to rein in my out-of-the-box thinking in order to provide the output teachers expected. In college, most of what I did to earn my business degree was as in-the-box as it gets. Then, towards the end of my degree, I had to sit through a video presentation about the wonders of out-of-the-box thinking, delivered by a WASP with a background in mainstream living. According to him, what businesses and organizations really need are out-of-the-box thinkers. All this time, I’d been working hard to learn everything within the business box, only to have this guy come along and tell me that the way I think is my strongest asset. Teachers, peers, parents, and friends have forced me to fit into society’s little box! Now, some of the same people who built the box in the first place are encouraging people to think outside of it? How weird is that?
I am different. Living outside of the box, among people who can appreciate and accept my idiosyncrasies, I can flourish. I can accomplish impressive, world-changing things. I can share the way I see the world with others and touch the hearts and minds of people who want to look outside the box for answers to their problems. I can help others to understand those of us who live outside the box. I can open minds to new ways of thinking that reveal entirely new ways of experiencing the world. I can dream and I can write, and by doing so I can influence others. But only if I am allowed outside the box others have created for me. When I live within the box, I stagnate. I devote so much of my energy to coping with others’ expectations and translating others’ ways of thinking that I can do little else. I’d spent so much of my life trying to fit within the box that the sudden discovery that I could choose to just be myself was disorienting—and all I had to do was have children who were even more different than I was.
The trouble is, for much of my life, I was trying so hard not to be different that I didn’t even realize how different I truly was. As a child, I was the kind of different that attracted bullies like flies. The way I talked was different, but I could chock that up to my various moves across country and the various dialects I’d picked up along the way. Add in my unusually robust vocabulary and there you go. I always felt more comfortable speaking with adults than my peers. At least they could understand me! Well, sort of.
I’ve been chastised many times to “dumb it down.” Occasionally, this would come up in school when I’d use words my fellow students couldn’t even pronounce, let alone understand. Teachers would mark my papers, requesting a more “appropriate” word. Often, though, my teachers found my expansive vocabulary to be refreshing. As I grew older, however, I started writing for magazines, particularly parenting magazines. Editors would often remove or replace my “fifty cent” words and tell me to “dumb it down” or “make it approachable.” I hate that. The low expectations we have for our readers disappoints me and the necessity for me to meet those lowered expectations frustrates me. I abhor how those lower expectations exclude ideas and nuance, eroding the middle ground we often need to solve social problems.
Beginning at twelve, I read essays and books by accomplished authors and explored many vast mental territories, from contemporary works to translated classics. Many people considered my reading choices beyond my depth, because I did not limit myself to mainstream expectations when I read. I saw how authors and essayists brought in a banquet of words to nourish the minds of their readers. By stretching myself to understand, I could break out of the box of my own era and glimpse life from other centuries and other cultures, enhancing and enriching the way I saw the world. Now, I read newspapers with their sparse, eighth-grade-level sentences and feel starved. How does lowering expectations improve society? Why is that “normal?”
It’s more than just the words we limit when we “dumb things down.” Every time I look outside of myself, my culture, or my time, I broaden myself. My mind is like a tree, pulling in facts and opinions from as far as my roots can reach, growing a strong trunk that makes up a layered worldview, branching out with new ideas and new ways of thinking, and sprouting leaves and fruits that I can share with others. What makes my mind especially unique, however, is the way this tree—my mind—is connected, cohesive, and whole. New information changes the entire tree, not just a single leaf or even an obviously pertinent branch of understanding.
Ah, but to communicate these thoughts and ideas is another matter entirely. Let me give you hint: I can’t fit my tree into society’s box. To act on these ideas with someone who is stuck in the box, first I have to walk them outside of the box and open their minds to my way of thinking. If I’m working directly with another individual—my co-author, for example—I use mind-maps to communicate the pertinent parts of the tree to the individual. Like the tree, a mind-map doesn’t rely on linear thinking; instead, it uses word or picture clusters to convey interconnected ideas and relationships. It takes a lot of discussion to figure out where the other person’s mind gets stuck in the box. My out-of-the-box thinking is as foreign to most people as their in-the-box thinking is to me, so we have to use words, pictures, and ideas to translate one form of thinking to another. This process is kind of like translating music into mathematics; it can be done, but the musician and the mathematician will never quite see the results the same way.
The mind-map helps my partner and me to figure out how to understand each other. So, eventually, we translate parts of the living tree into a mind-map that makes sense amongst the two or three of us, which breaks us all out of the box. Then, we move to an outline, which translates the mind-map into a linear progression of ideas that is the closest I can come to in-the-box thinking. Mind-mapping and then outlining allows me to translate the tree into something that fits within the box, but it still doesn’t fit the entire tree within the box.
It’s more than just my mind, though, that is different. Everything from the way I hold myself to the body language I use differs from my “normal” peers. Even my gait, or the way I walk, is different! By the time I hit my teen years, I was often scolded by adults. “Walk like a lady,” they said. I assumed they meant that my hips should swing the way other women’s do. I tried, but I couldn’t do it. Reaching for an explanation, I latched onto the idea that I changed my gait in response to sexual assault, as part of my unconscious determination not to be “beautiful” ever again. Years later, I chatted with someone with autism online who claimed he’d be able to recognize me the first time we met just by the way I walked. Hm?
Delving into the sorted and distorted memories of my past, I came across fragments of bullying where the students walking behind me whispered comments that hadn’t made sense at the time. Maybe my gait had always been different and I’d just never really noticed. So, I studied how others walked, men and women, boys and girls. Then, I paid attention to how I walked. It wasn’t just that my hips don’t swing “like a lady’s.” There is a clunkiness to my steps, as if I unconsciously seek out the reassurance of gravity every time my feet leave the ground.
The way I speak, the way I think, the way I move, it’s all different. The way I live in this world is different. I live outside the box, but often have to crawl within it just to be heard, to be appreciated, to be understood. For most of my life, I could not fathom this tug of war for control. Then, my children were diagnosed with autism. By learning what makes my children different from “normal” children, I was able to see the differences that had separated me from my peers for so long. It seems like the differences that made me and my husband who we are—people who can never be comfortable within society’s box—were amplified in our children, making them who they are. This realization forced me to grow whole new branches of understanding and awareness on my tree, but—and this is key—these branches had to fit within the whole. So, as my awareness grew and as I came to understand the significance of autism in my children and myself, that facet of my mental processing—the need to connect and relate different ideas together into a cohesive whole—would come to mean more to me than anything else. It’s not “normal.” Most people seem quite content to live with the dissonance between their beliefs and their actions, like how they are content to place unnecessary limitations on others’ potential, but resent it when others’ limit their own. I can’t live with that dissonance and I’m okay with that. There’s something to be said for living outside the box.