I was sitting on the bleachers at our neighborhood pool watching my son Sawyer take his swimming lesson. On this evening, I decided to sit at the far end of the pool, away from the other parents. My seat was nearer where Sawyer was swimming, but it also afforded me an opportunity to be alone with the challenge of watching my son struggle to do what so many of the other kids did easily. I had been the sort of kid who did most things easily. I had once believed that that ease was a pathway to future success. It wasn’t, but I still worried for Sawyer, still wished he could overtly excel at something.
A mother joined me on my set of bleachers. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and stared out across the pool as if she were trying to answer a question that had been keeping her awake off and on for years. I knew worry when I saw it. For most of my life, I had had very little patience for it in other people. I hated worrying, though I did it plenty. It seemed like a contagion. When people brought me theirs, all I wanted to say was, “Stop! I’ve got enough worries of my own, I don’t need you infecting me with yours.”
I was not always the most compassionate listener, but I saw this habit as a matter of self-preservation. On this evening, however, I found myself drawn to talk to this woman specifically because she seemed worried.
“Who’s your kid?” I asked.
She pointed to the other side of the pool. “That’s him there. Aiden.”
I nodded, and watched her boy splash distractedly, ignoring the instructor. “Is he on the spectrum?”
She nodded gravely.
“Yeah, so is mine. That’s Sawyer over there.”
She glanced at Sawyer and then shook her head. “I’m just concerned for him all the time. What if he’s not going to be all right?”
I thought about Sawyer and all I’d learned raising him. I thought of the things I’d had to explain to him that I’d never had to explain before, and how in doing so I actually learned more about what I was teaching him.
“What if our problem is that we just weren’t expecting to teach them what we’re having to teach them?” I said. “It’s like we had this list of things we thought kids would have to learn, but these kids come along and it’s like, no, you have to teach me why I should listen, or why I should go to school, or why I should care about all the things you want me to care about. Maybe that’s what’s got us so freaked out.”
She nodded. “Maybe. Yeah, maybe.”
I didn’t know if that helped her, but it helped me. It helped me because it got me thinking about Sawyer differently, but also because it was the first time I realized what had changed in me. Parenting Sawyer had certainly taught me a lot, but it wasn’t until that moment that I learned I simply couldn’t indulge my desire to worry for him. There were just too many opportunities to do so.
Instead, I had to trust that there was something fundamentally okay about him, just as there was something fundamentally okay about me. This okay-ness had nothing to do with skill or what we call success. It just was, an unconditional stability available whenever I chose to rest in it.
Practicing not worrying taught me not to fear it–specifically in myself. Any concern, any doubt, could be set down and let go if I allowed myself to do so. It was a form of compassion I showed myself, one I had withheld for many years as I tried unsuccessfully to achieve my way to happiness. As this mother and I got up to collect our kids, it occurred to me that you cannot give to anyone else what you have not first given to yourself.
So often, kindness is taught as something we extend to others, which it is. I certainly look for opportunities to practice kindness with the people I know and meet, but I can practice it with myself every moment of every day. There are only benefits to this practice, finding in myself the very world we all seem to be striving to create together.