This collage contains my all-time favorite pictures of Joel. Did I say all-time favorite? I LOVE THESE PICTURES! I laughed out loud in the middle of Walgreen’s as I thumbed through my order. I have Joel’s sister, Sarah, to thank. She shot them in Gatlinburg, outside the Mellow Mushroom restaurant, where we’d just had some of the best pizza we’d ever eaten.
We were on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. As much as we like to avoid the crowds and touristy stuff when we go to The Smokies, Joel really likes to ride the trolley in Gatlinburg. This year, Sarah even talked him into riding the aerial tram to the top of the mountain. A first!
Our first full day in the park Joel and Sarah hiked the trail to Abram’s Falls. This is a 5 mile round trip hike our map described as “easy to moderate.” Six hours later, Joel was really tired out. Later in the week we would find that he had badly bruised a toe–no wonder he refused to get out of the car for any more hikes! The remainder of the week Wally, Sarah and I took turns driving the scenic roads with Joel while the other two did some more hiking. Mid-week we even considered going home a few days early (a major melt-down had left us exhausted). The next day Joel woke up in a good mood. All of a sudden, Gatlinburg didn’t sound so bad.
So often what the world sees when they look at Joel is a young man who struggles with anxiety, who can’t put that anxiety into words, and who lashes out with his hands when the anxiety ramps up. A young man who doesn’t talk unless he knows you really, really well. I want to point to these photos and shout, This is the real deal!
Yes, Joel has his struggles. We all do. His happen to be more intense than yours and mine. A whole team of people do their best to help Joel navigate his days successfully. There is a lot of suffering that comes with autism and bipolar disorder, especially when an anxiety disorder is thrown into the mix. We live in a culture that advocates running away from the suffering; that tells us to ignore it; that supports numbing it. That’s why drug and alcohol abuse are so rampant. Why divorce is so common. why relationships fall apart.
And yet, Jesus tells us to embrace our suffering:
Calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? Mark 8:34-37 (The Message)
What does “embracing suffering” look like?
Looking up synonyms for the word “embrace” I find this:
to accept or support (a belief, theory, or change) willingly
to welcome, accept, take up, take to one’s heart, adopt, support, back, champion
This is what we do every day as parents of special kids. We accept and take up the hard stuff – the suffering – that comes with raising our children. We’ve “got their backs,” we champion them, even though some days are so difficult we don’t know if we’ll make it to bedtime.
Suffering becomes a part of who we are. But it is only part of who we are, for with the suffering comes great joy. Jesus suffered and died on the cross, and rose three days later in a glorious resurrection. Talk about joy! Jesus teaches us to die to self daily as we parent our children. We are resurrected daily by little things that those who don’t walk our path deem insignificant: a smile, a hug, a new word spoken, a step taken without the walker, shoes tied independently. waking up dry in the morning, a collage of silly pictures. Joy, joy, and more joy!
What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?
I wouldn’t trade our life with Joel for anything in the world. Like I said earlier, these are my all-time favorite pictures of Joel. They remind me that even in the midst of the suffering, maybe even because of the suffering, God is at work, honing my son – honing me – into the beautiful people he created us to be. He is peeling away the layers that hide our true selves that were created in the image of God.
Bless you for teaching me that, Joel!