What My Autistic Brother Can Teach You About “Life Purpose”.
“The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is.”
– Jim Carrey, in his Maharishi University Commencement Speech*.
Every weekday, consistently between the hours of 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, my younger brother bursts into my room to carry out his morning routine.
Most of the time I’ll be deep in thought, meditation, journaling or doing some other Morning Ritual thing that “Successful” people claim to do. Every now and then I’ll still be asleep, but he doesn’t seem to mind.
Without saying a word, he begins moving things back to where he wants them – even if I’d arranged them deliberately. He moves furniture to his liking and rotates books and paperwork to form neat right angles. He’s making my room conform to the way it should be, in his world.
This needs to happen. Every day.
At the end, once he’s satisfied with the tinkering he’s done in my room, he walks over to me expecting some appreciation. While covering his ears, he stands in front of me, anticipating a peck on one cheek, and then the other.
“Good job, Javi.” I tell him.
“Very good job!” he replies, one of the few phrases he’s learned to say.
And with that, he goes off on his way to get ready for school.
This little performance remains amusing to me – every time. I don’t mean to make fun of him, or anyone else with his condition, but these personality quirks are something to be appreciated. Wherever he is, just by being who he is – my brother’s always had the ability to lighten people’s moods. Even the things he did that upset me years ago, are funny to me now (example: regularly dropping my N64 cartridges out of our 2nd floor window for no reason).
As I fumble my way through my 20s trying to figure out what to do with my life, I frequently remind myself of my younger brother. What remains true for me is that the effect that people have on each other, regardless of achievements or titles, is the only real “life purpose” we have.
The topic of “finding your life’s purpose” is one that comes up a lot in self help books, blogs, personal development seminars and courses across the internet. I can see why their appeal has been increasing over the years. After all, “What should I do with my life?” is something people ask themselves whether they’re young or old. Many feel stuck in boring jobs, environments and relationships and circumstances that leave them unfulfilled.
There are a lot of people out there who have had many different, unrelated jobs throughout their lives. At 26 I’ve had only a few odd jobs, gotten laid off and been involved in a few “unsuccessful” business projects. About the only thing I haven’t done yet is find a stable, normal job. Like many others, I’ve been experimenting, and trying to find the right career path for me.
Among these experiments was the time I tried working in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis), helping children with autism learn the skills and behavior they need to function in society. I figured my life experience prepared me for that line of work, and that naturally I’d have a knack for it. I quickly found out otherwise.
During my training, the skills I learned were intended to accelerate each child’s social and cognitive development. I then realized several mistakes my family had made in regards to my younger brother’s upbringing. Our habitual patterns and interactions with him probably reinforced some of his eccentric (sometimes inappropriate) behaviors. For instance, us laughing when he repeats part of a phrase out of context might enable him to keep saying it randomly.
I didn’t last very long at that job. For a variety of reasons – namely that I wasn’t very entertaining or engaging for the kids I was trying to help. Oh well, it wasn’t for me and it was probably best for the kids, too.
I don’t regret having tried it, and I don’t regret any of my other mishaps for that matter. What I do end up regretting is the status anxiety, the constant comparison that comes with living in modern society. And when those feelings do come up, it helps to turn to my younger brother and take note of how he goes through life.
He’s in his early twenties now, his critical years of cognitive development are mostly behind him. Over the years our family invested a lot in schools, therapy, medication, and whatever tools were available to help him become as functional as possible. There’s still hope for him to learn and the means to do so, surely. But despite our efforts to help him, he’s still considered “low functioning”. And still, he’s every bit as deserving of love as a “normal” person.
There’s something beautiful, rare and profound about a person who’s never learned to “Keep up with the Joneses”, as they say. Even without having the language to communicate – what remains is the joyful, natural, immutable expression of being human. And that’s enough to have an impact on people, as I’ve seen in the classrooms, hospitals and public spaces we’ve taken him to.
During our regular walks together, I’m often contemplating the next steps I should be taking in life. I’m sure there’s plenty to do, and that fulfilling my “life’s purpose” will be experienced through some kind of achievement. And yet, I can’t forget that each of us has a gift, an inner light that always wants to shine whether we’re aware of it or not.
It took me many years to realize how fortunate I am to have my younger brother as a reminder of that light. Sure, he might not understand my worldly concerns, or the current political climate. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic, but he might never understand the words “I love you”…
And his presence makes those words obsolete.
Thank you for reading.
- A link to Jim Carrey’s Speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V80-gPkpH6M
- I don’t really like to refer to him as my “Autistic Brother”, but for the sake of having people click this, I thought that might be helpful 😛