In the on-again phase, I join up in order to find community and purpose. I’m on fire with the cause. I’m changing the world. I’m part of something important. I’m going to find belonging at last. Glory halleluyah!
In the off-again phase, I realize that I’m not suited to conventional organizational life because of my most enduring and valuable quality: I am a fierce human being.
When I’m attempting to be part of the structure of an organization, I try to hide my nature, even from myself. I do everything within my power to subjugate it to my quest for belonging. I attempt to negotiate with it. I try to hammer it into compliance. I attempt to bribe it, talk it to death, and rock it to sleep. But when all is said and done, my fierce nature struggles its way out of the smothering cocoon in which I’ve bound it, and then my time in the organization draws to a close.
Sometimes, I just take my toys and go, and sometimes, there’s drama. But always, there is a particular turning point that signals that I might need to start looking for the door. Something happens, and while others pay it no mind, I feel it intensely. I’ll usually try to wait it out and see whether the situation improves. Sometimes, I’ll actively try to work it out, for shorter or longer periods, depending upon the context. But ultimately, I find myself at an impasse. The situation won’t change, and my feelings about the situation won’t change. That’s when I decide to go.
I would like to be able to report that, when the moment comes, I feel tremendous liberation and relief. But I don’t. Those feelings come later. At the moment of leaving, I feel a deep sadness. And that’s when the blaming-everyone-else phase takes hold:
“Why is no one listening? Why does no one care? Why does no one else see it as I do? What’s the matter with these people?”
And then, like clockwork, the self-deprecation phase begins:
“What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? Why can’t I be like everyone else? Why am I always an outsider?”
It’s a fun place to be, let me tell ya. And all of it—all of it—is a mere distraction. When I finally part ways with the people with whom I’ve been struggling, one truth becomes clear: we’re fundamentally different souls destined to do fundamentally different things. There is no changing it. They don’t see what I see, and they don’t understand where I’m coming from. Throwing more and more words at the situation in an attempt to close the gap gets me precisely nothing, except upset and exhaustion.
We may share the same politics, or religion, or technical interest, or cause, but that commonality masks a huge difference in outlook and approach. Attempting to join hands on the road to happy destiny only means that someone is going to get dragged, kicking and screaming, to a place they just don’t want to go. The result is not a happy outcome, for anyone.
When I’m going round and round and round in my mind in the initial stages of such a debacle, I’m not facing up to the core truth about my life: I am on a solitary path. That’s my karma. That’s my life lesson. That’s why these forays into joining up with large organizations just don’t work. I’ve gone off my path entirely.
The necessity of travelling the solitary path has been the core lesson of all my losses. Over the course of my life, the losses have come thick and fast, and now they’re all crying out at once to say, “You must find the strength to travel this road. Stop arguing. You have no other choice.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The solitary path does not wind through an unpeopled landscape, and it is not an escape from engagement with the difficulties of the world. There is still much work to be done and much struggle to be had, but they take place in a context fundamentally different from an external organizational one. And, of course, I have many, many fellow travellers, each travelling their own solitary paths as well.
Could you call us a community? Sure. Call us a community in motion, weaving ceaselessly through one another’s lives. We’re the people who speak the truth, without sugar-coating of any kind, even though few people are happy or comfortable with us when we do. We question and confront authority without apology or shame. We chafe against ideological or political conformity. We value individuals over organizations, and we are each our own leaders.
As we travel down the road, we greet each other every day and, when our paths run close by one another, we talk about our struggles. We support one another. We listen to one another. We strengthen one another in the midst of the difficulties of the moment, when the loneliness feels unbearable because so few people understand. And somehow, we always find one another. Always. Even when the darkness descends and we feel we can’t go another step, we find one another. We call out, each in our own voices, and we hear others calling out in return.
And so I write. And write. And write. And sometimes, I think that’s not enough. Sometimes, I catch myself feeling that I want to be part of something bigger, better, more important. But there is no such thing. There is only the illusion of it. After all, what could be more important than doing what I was born to do: speaking in my own voice, in my own way, for my own reasons, under my own power?
And if one person reads my words and gets something out of them, I’ve done my job well. After all, one person isn’t simply a mark on a census form. One person is, after all, an infinite universe.
Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism.
Rachel’s memoir is The Uncharted Path
[image is of the author, taken by her husband]