Growing up there were two great influences on my life. These influences taught me how to live a life of faith, love and sacrifice.
My father was a military man. He spent more than 20 years serving our country. As a child, I was privileged to travel the world. I am a better man for it. My father’s time serving the nation deeply influenced my love for multiculturalism. Living with and loving other races, ethnicities and cultures was a part of my early childhood development.
My father wasn’t just a military man; he was also a minister. He was equally as serious about being a pastor as he was a soldier. He was committed to doing both with excellence, and, in many ways, his ability to give his life to something greater than himself influenced the way I serve others today.
Although I had a fairly good childhood, I also had a particularly difficult childhood. I struggled to understand people and to make sense of the world around me. But when you move every few years and live in different countries, those challenges are to be expected. It always seemed as if the entire world was in on an inside joke that I just didn’t understand. Despite almost being kicked out of high school my freshman year, I survived. I made it through college. I got married. I became a father. I earned a doctorate degree. Despite all of these accomplishments, I still had an internal struggle I had yet to address.
In 2013, I finally hit the proverbial wall. My self-taught coping strategies stopped working. I came face to face with the reality that the issues I had worked so hard to hide weren’t as hidden as I had once thought. Success didn’t strip me of my struggle. In fact, to some degree, my success seemed to place me at the center of finally having to deal with my internal struggle.
When you grow up the way I did, you learn quickly how to defend yourself. As a child who was often the subject of bullying, I learned to defend myself. By the time I was 36, I had developed the perfect response to every question about me. When people observed what seemed to be a lack of social skills and social awareness, I did what we all do. I denied it. I defended it. I dismissed it.
After decades of this battle and the burden it had become on my mental, emotional and spiritual health, I took a deep breath, looked myself in the mirror and uttered four simple words: “Everyone can’t be wrong.” Realizing there had to be a reason for these observations, I finally mustered up the courage to take a hard look at what I was experiencing and what people were observing. The result was that I was professionally diagnosed at age 36 with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
I am in no way making light of autism spectrum disorder. As autism advocate myself, I take very seriously the need to provide resources and support to those in the autism community. It is a cause to which I have given my life since being diagnosed in 2014.
With that being said, I believe that out of all the factors that may have led to my years of living with ASD undiagnosed, I think the biggest factor is my developmental history is a mystery.
We didn’t know what to look for then, so as the years went on the struggles I had were attributed mainly to character flaws or behavioral issues. My diagnosis eventually helped to bring some closure to a period in my life that was very difficult, but it also helped to promote a series of conversations about both my past development and the future direction of my life. As a result, I understand the world around me in a much different way than before.
In a time of social, civil and racial unrest in our country, I believe we have lived with the same silent struggle I had experienced until just two years ago. America has excelled despite her difficulties. She is indeed a great nation. She has grown up and had a lot of success, but she has still struggled and many of her self-taught coping strategies are no longer working.
Perhaps our great nation also has a mysterious developmental history, and the result is a country that struggles to find herself and appreciate both the beauty and the burden of living up to its fullest potential by embracing its ideals and core values that all people are created equal.
As I child, I learned to give my life to something greater than myself. As an adult, I learned it meant learning to listen to what everyone else seems to know about me except me. Eventually, it meant asking myself a tough question: “What do people experience when they experience me?” It’s the question that led me to the conclusion that everyone can’t be wrong.
Yes, I am sure there were people who didn’t mean me well. I am not totally naïve, but I also believe there were enough incidents and enough verifiable evidence to suggest that I take some of their objective observations seriously.
Our country is great, but she has been left to figure herself out for so long that she learned to deny, defend and, in many cases, dismiss the objective observations of those around her. When people of color, the LBGT community, the Native American community, the disability community and immigrants are all making objective observations about what they experience in our country, it has been my personal experience that everyone can’t be wrong.
While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do know the value of asking the right questions. My hope and prayer is that our nation, as great as she is, finds the courage to finally ask herself the question that I had to ask myself: “What do people experience when they experience me?”
In the end, asking that question has allowed me to become a much better man, and I believe if you have the courage to do the same, you can become a better country, too.
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