Beneath the Surface
The time I spent with Willie during my recent visit to New Jersey was remarkably uneventful … on the surface, that is. There were no major meltdowns. He did wake up agitated in the middle of the night a few times, but he regained calm quickly. It was—and I hesitate to say this, for fear that I might somehow retroactively jinx it—peaceful. Willie and I played Uno, watched movies, and took Chevy the dog for walks. And when we helped our grandparents move into their new home (they've relocated from Arizona to southern New Jersey), Willie was the undisputed star of the day. He broke down boxes, peeled off ugly pastel-pink window blind coverings, and took care of Chevy too. Our extended family commented on Willie's composure, and indeed, he seemed to manage the stressful day better than anyone else. (In the end, I'm pretty sure he the only one who didn't get into a single argument.)
For so long, I've wished and hoped and prayed for Willie to lead a more peaceful life. And now that he's calm, I'm the one struggling with feelings of explosive, unexpected anger. (Talk about a role reversal.) In the past few weeks, I've been facing the fallout from a lifetime of people-pleasing. I'm uncovering deep-seated reasons why I deal with shame and false guilt and perfectionism, why I constantly apologize for things that aren't my fault, why I connect so deeply with stories of people breaking free from legalistic, exclusive, and spiritually abusive religious groups. (Spoiler alert: I've been there.) Given this inner turmoil, I desperately needed the peace I felt just “hanging out” with Willie. Even if my brother is preoccupied with, say, typing film credits, I enjoy just being in his presence. And I've come to believe that this is probably the best way for me to love Willie: to approach him without agenda, receptive and willing to be surprised.
With that in mind, I sat down next to Willie one evening. I didn't want to talk; in fact, I just wanted to be with someone who wasn't expecting anything of me. It was the same day we'd helped our grandparents move, and I was exhausted and edgy after dealing with the conflicts that had arisen during the day. Willie, however, was calm, happily playing a Disney video repeatedly. I recognized the song (as many siblings can boast, I am an expert in all things animated). Willie was listening to “God Help the Outcasts” from Disney's “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He started singing softly, with great tenderness. He was doing an excellent imitation of the gypsy-character vocalist, yet I also had the sense that he was putting his own feelings into the song.
These were the words that Willie was singing: “I ask for nothing / I can get by / But I know so many / Less lucky than I / Please help my people, the poor and downtrod / I thought we all were the children of God.”
There was something profound shimmering in those words. I listened closely, and beneath the surface, this is what I heard him say to me:
I know I'm different in some ways. I know I don't think or act like others. But I don't need pity. I already have everything I need. What I want is for others to have what they need. That's why I pray for you and Jonathan and Christian and Raoul [two children our family sponsored in Ecuador] every night. And haven't you noticed? Every time I pray, I put others first. No one taught me to do that. I pray for all of you, and then I say, “And please help Willie be calm.” Every single time.
Why did Willie choose that song? I'll never know. Maybe it was random, but it didn't feel that way. Instead, it felt like manna falling from the sky, like receiving the thing I needed most before I'd even thought to ask. And as I struggle with how the concept of God has been misused in my life, that moment has become a touchstone. Leave it to Willie to remind me what's worth believing in.