The other day in a Wagner College discussion group, I confessed that the books I am most drawn to are the ones that seem to be striving to teach me, however indirectly or unintentionally, how to live. Reading the Times Book Review today, I noticed that two of the books reviewed, one about a father who cares for his profoundly disabled son and another about a woman reared on a remote utopian farm, grapple with this very question of how to live and how the attempt to find answers shape our values and exhort us to make the most of our days.
I am now almost finished with a book that offers a wealth of wisdom about how to live. I found it on a public library bookshelf last Saturday and have been reading it aloud with Karen, with frequent pauses for sobs and laughs, most of the week. It is called "The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy" by Priscilla Gilman, and it, too, is a book about a parent who struggles to raise her mysterious but extraordinary son.
A Yale Ph.D. in English and for a while a Professor of Literature at Yale and Vassar, Gilman's life is turned entirely upside down by the birth of her distant, aloof, but remarkably gifted son. Reading before the age of 2, but seemingly cut off from those around him, her son Benjamin whom the family usually refers to as Benj, is eventually diagnosed as having hyperlexia, a form of high functioning autism in which a precocious ability to read words is paired with difficulty understanding spoken language and abnormal social skills.
The story that she tells about her struggle to find help for Benj is incredibly inspiring, but it is the changes that occur in her that especially intrigue me. Her profound insight that there is no hard dividing line between normal and abnormal and that there is a continuum of behavior on which all of us can be found comes across with striking clarity and power in her narrative. Additionally, she brilliantly develops the insight that our quest for high achievement and recognition is far more dependent on luck and chance than we usually concede and that such a quest often carries with it a heavy burden that is not always worth the cost.
Her final chapter, which develops these themes and many others with far more wisdom than I can capture here, is truly a meditation on how to live a different kind of life than Americans, in particular, are used to hearing. The life she describes does not disdain high honor, but also avoids overdoing it, endeavoring instead to more deeply appreciate our unique constellation of abilities and limits. As she says in this last chapter, "In my experiences as first a high-achieving student, and then as a professor of high-achieving students, and later as a mother navigating the intensely competitive New York City private-school admission circus, I've had to confront artificial benchmarks of progress and achievement over and over again. And while on the one hand, I've often been saddened to learn that Benj is falling short of a norm, on the other I've often felt a strong resistance to the idea that he must conform to that norm."
Quoting the German poet Heine - "What the world seeks and hopes for has now become utterly foreign to my heart" - Gilman rejects the race for prestige and distinction and embraces the everyday sort of loving relationship that her son Benj and his brother James have been able to build together. It is paying attention to these relational milestones that now more than ever give her life new meaning and purpose.
The story Priscilla Gilman tells is the life of a single American family and it is unique to that family. But how she tells this story and the way in which she explores its impact on her own life offers me and, I am sure, many others a glimpse of how we can begin to live our own lives a little more compassionately and appreciatively.