In January, I heard a fascinating radio show on how our expectations affect people around us in concrete and long-term ways. The show was the premiere episode of the terrific Invisibilia podcast, and was broadcast on This American Life.
The main story was about Daniel Kish, completely blind since he was a toddler, who literally sees the world around him by echo-locating, a skill he developed independently. He hikes, rides a bike and moves through the world with fluidity and confidence in large part because his mom refused to let her and others’ fears and worries restrict his exploration and learning.
In the podcast, interviewer Alix Spiegel explained that Daniel believes more blind people don’t move through the world so easily because our “expectations, those private thoughts in our heads” about what blind people can do “are too low” and “are extremely powerful things” that “have the ability to change the blind person we are thinking about.” Daniel said, “That psychology becomes inculcated in the blind person, absorbed, and translated into physical reality.”
Daniel’s mom, Paulette, had to make a choice between whether to put restrictions on him to protect him or raise him like a seeing child and allow him to explore his world unfettered. Daniel had some bad injuries growing up and lots of people worried about him, including Paulette, but when people asked her how she could let Daniel do the things he did, “she’d look at his smiling face and think, ‘How could I not?’”
The primary reason she decided to raise Daniel so differently from most blind kids was that she had removed herself from a physically abusive relationship and “vowed never to be ruled by fear again.” In the podcast, Paulette explained, “There’s life and then there’s living your life. There is a difference.” When the interviewer asked her about the fear that a car would hit and kill Daniel, Paulette replied, “But that could happen to anyone.”
Which brings me to the point of this post. As parents, we (and I do include myself) tie ourselves up in knots with our multitudinous fears for our children. Instead of acknowledging that bad things can and do happen to others and to us, and choosing to live our lives fully anyway, we spend huge amounts of treasure–our time, our love and energy–controlling our children’s time, movement, activities, and interactions in a foolhardy attempt to protect them from unpleasantness, pain and injury. We are seduced by the illusion that we can control their experience of the world.
I ached inside when my son had difficult interactions with schoolmates. It brought up distressing childhood memories. I hated that I couldn’t protect him from painful feelings. Although my desire to protect him was natural, trying to prevent painful interactions and save him from hurt came from an assumption, an expectation, that he was not capable of responding and learning and that the experience would diminish and damage him. I had low expectations and didn’t believe he had his own resources. He did. He does.
Time and time again, when I feel worry and fear creep in, I have to keep remembering and intoning a mantra of sorts: my son’s journey is separate from mine, he is a whole person, and it is his task to figure out how to navigate, endure and develop strength and wisdom in the painful experiences of life. The best way I can support him in that journey is to control what I can control: to choose what to do when I’m afraid; to identify what fear tells me about my expectations of him; and to see him as fundamentally healthy and whole.
The story of Daniel Kish is a reminder that none of us has any idea what each of us is capable of in most situations. Creating expectations about other people is debilitating because it creates artificial limits based on nothing. I don’t know the extent of my abilities and it is arrogant of me to predict the limits or extent of someone else’s.
I choose to live with a commitment to allow space and freedom for every one of us to set and re-set our expectations for ourselves without the burden of meeting or falling short of anyone else’s. Perhaps, abilities that seem extraordinary now will become more ordinary–and just as wonderful–because it won’t be unusual for all of us to keep growing and learning without expectations.
See Daniel Kish talk at PopTech about how he sees and how he helps other blind people learn the skill. He has a great definition of freedom: “We have found a way to help [blind students] reclaim their freedom, re-establish their capacity to direct their own achievements in a manner of their own choosing.”