Tomorrowland: The Stealer of Joy

My son Sam is a worrier and a perfectionist. Those two do not go hand in hand easily. What Sam struggles with the most is that he does not undertake anything he does not think he can accomplish. When beginning something new, he goes through a period of worrying about and analyzing the thing he wants to do, because he doesn't want to do it if he can't finish it, or do it well. The bigger problem is that most of the things he worries about are things he can't do yet- like going to college, or finding a wife, or having kids, or finding a job and making money. So he gets stuck in this worry cycle. And when Sam worries, he asks a lot of questions.

"Mom, college is going to be hard. I don't think I can do it."
"Mom, how will I ever find a wife? What if she leaves me? How will I know if she wants kids? How can I get a boy AND a girl?"
"How do people find jobs? You can't just walk into a place and say, 'Hey, give me a job.' What if I don't make a lot of money? I want to make a lot of money. But if I have a wife and a family, I'll have to provide for them. That seems too hard. Maybe I don't want kids."
"If I have kids, I'm going to have to teach them everything. How do kids learn words? There's a MILLION words in the English language. I can't teach them ALL THE WORDS! Maybe I don't want kids. It's going to be too hard."

My response to the kids thing? Your wife will tell you whether or not you want kids. ;-)

Kidding aside though, worry eats him up.There are so many things he doesn't know or understand about the world, and that scares him. The kid is only 13 years old, and his main concerns are how to make money, and how to teach his kids all. the. words.

man-person-street-sidewalk.jpg

I've been homeschooling him for his 7th and 8th grade years. Our plan was to send him back to public school for his high school years. I have nothing against homeschooling high schoolers, and this post isn't about that. But he has talked about wanting to go to college, and we will encourage him in that way until the Lord shows a different path for him, if that's what's best for him. In college though, there are lots of difficult social situations, especially in the classroom. He'll have professors who give deadlines and set tough expectations. Sure, there may be allowances, but overall, these are things he would need to be able to cope with, and I think that being in the high school setting will really better prepare him for that than doing homeschool with me alone in our home. If I've learned one thing from autism, it's how to prepare my child for what's ahead.

But Sam isn't happy about this plan. He's scared. He's worried. And he's asking a lot of questions. He has a tendency not to try something if he thinks it will be too hard. He has to know he'll be able to do it before he starts. I think that's why cross-country is such a perfect fit for him. He knows he can run. He knows there's a definitive start and end to a race. He knows he'll probably get faster the more he runs (and he has proven that to himself with each personal record time!) But high school? That's going to be a lot of work. What if he has the same problems with high school teachers as he did in 6th grade? What if he doesn't have a group of friends he can hang out with like his older brother? How can he get a group of friends like that? He needs answers if he's going to do this. But my answers aren't sufficient for him.

Walking with Sam through his anxieties reminded me of my own questions just after his diagnosis. All the what-ifs in the world haunted me daily. With each new word he eventually learned, it never seemed to be enough. Sure, he could finally ask for juice by signing it, but what if he could never ask with words? Then, he's asking for juice with words... great, but what if he's never able to get it on his own? Years later when he's getting it on his own, sure, but what if... and on and on it goes in a vicious cycle. It's not that I wasn't thrilled out of my mind when he reached these milestones. The problem was, I had set up SO MANY milestones for him to accomplish, that I was always worried he'd never reach the next one. And when he did, I was too focused on what he hadn't done yet that I didn't fully appreciate what he had done. This cycle is what I'm deeming "Tomorrowland."

Parents of kids with disabilities and special needs know all about Tomorrowland. We live it daily. Many of us lived in Next-Minute-Land as we held our breath waiting to see if our child would take another breath on their own. And when they did, we held our breath again, waiting to hear another tiny exhalation. And another. And another. We learned not to breathe, as if it was stealing our child's breath by taking one of our own. We learned never to exhale because the fight was never over. We learned never to relax and sleep deeply because they might wake us up with screaming, or something worse. The cycle is not easily broken.

Tomorrowland is stealing from us. It's stealing our joy for the beauty of this moment right here. It's stealing all future joy as well, because even if in five years he answers the questions I'm asking now, by accomplishing something I desire for him, he still hasn't answered the questions I had for him ten years from now. It's never enough. There's always tomorrow. There's always more. More possible disappointment. More tears. More grief. Tomorrowland is the stealer of joy. We need as much joy infused into our lives as possible, and our weary souls can't handle anymore thievery.

As my son has grown in age and hurdled more milestones than I ever thought he would, I now see my own Tomorrowland mentality in him. I'm no longer the only one asking questions of his future. He is doing the same, and somehow I have to guide him through it, having never conquered the cycle myself. I tell him he can't worry about what hasn't happened yet, or what isn't right in front of him. He doesn't need to worry about finding a wife until he's even old enough to get married, and even then, worry won't be helpful. He doesn't need to worry about teaching his kids all the words right now when he is still learning the words himself (as if we parents even know all the words ourselves!)

But we can't guide our children not to venture into Tomorrowland if we're still living there ourselves. Do we wonder about the future? Yes. Should we plan for the future? To an extent, yes. Should we worry about the future? You can face tomorrow without worrying about all your —or your child's—tomorrows. Let me remind you of these words from Matthew 6:27 and 34:

"And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?"
"Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself."

Today is yesterday's tomorrow, and as the verse says, it carries with it its own worries. We've got enough to deal with today without worrying that we don't have all the questions answered for our child's future. I don't know that we'd be able to handle them even if we did. But don't let the anxieties of the future steal your joy for today. Find things you are thankful for. Name them. Write them down.I keep journals lying around, and writing blog posts helps too for me to remember goodness. Keep in mind though that you can't remember goodness if you're not on the lookout for it to write it down so you can remember later. Last week, our family had a good solid hour+ of dinnertime when not one brother fussed at another, not one parent had to correct a kid, we laughed, we had meaningful conversation, every kid ate the food served to him without needing chicken fries on the side, and the meal was excellent to boot. It wasn't until later that evening I realized our family had accomplished at least one mealtime that was peaceful and enjoyable with each other. I'm writing it here so I will remember it.

Joy happens when you don't even realize it. As you drive kids to therapy and appointments and school and activities and McDonalds, when you see a moment of joy, stop and relish in it. Don't rush to Tomorrowland's waiting line. And if you had a terrible, horrible, no-good bad day and goodness was playing hide and seek (and won), don't worry. There's always tomorrow.