At the age of 17 when the thought of boys and dating engrossed my classmates (all three of them), I first heard and truly understood the meaning of the statement: Desire causes suffering, in Professor Ortega’s Asian Literature class. Prior to that the only thing I knew of Buddhism was that Buddha was a big, overweight, hairless man who happily let children climb all over him. There was a hole on his head where one could put coins. Yes, a ceramic Buddha was a popular coin bank when I was just a child. (I went to a Catholic high school and discussions about other religions were not encouraged nor tolerated. And I was raised by devout Catholics who were both choir members in the church. Hence, 17, a little late. )
I no longer remember the story that we were discussing in class then, but my introduction to the idea that desire causes suffering was a catalyst in my life. It has since been ingrained in my brain and has spared me from what could have been disastrous consequences of my giving in to unreasonable desires. The idea taught me to to be content with whatever I have, no matter how little.
Realizing that it was not easy to let go of any kind of desire, I searched for ways to make it feasible. I read, and as happens when sometimes one searches for something, one discovers something else, I came across Stoicism–indifference to pleasure or pain, another interesting thought. Serendipity. I tried to practice it, of course not realizing right away that I was just pretending to be apathetic. Perhaps it is impossible for literature majors to be stoic; empathy is hard-wired into our consciousness.
Later I realized that my attempts at stoicism was in itself a desire, and because I could not be successfully stoic, I was disappointed with myself and suffered.
Then came the acceptance that it was impossible for me, an ordinary mortal, to be without desires. However (yes, there was hope), I thought I could limit my desires.
“Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.” Thoreau could not have been more thorough in his advice.
I never wanted to get married. I thought, what’s the point? We are born alone. We die alone. But I got married, the reason I will not write about, but suffice it to say, I never did want to get married. The comedy of how I ended up married will perhaps be written about years from now. By me, of course.
I never wanted a child. An erstwhile friend once said to me he would never forget how I told him pregnant women looked like victims. I wish he had seen me pregnant. We would have had a good laugh about it.
I got pregnant because I had to fulfill a promise to my husband that I would give him a child. I tried to postpone it a couple of years, hoping it would be too late; but I was meant to be pregnant. I had tried to convince my husband that I should be enough for him. He and our marriage were certainly enough for me. I did not want anything else. I failed of course, especially because he is Chinese. If you have ever come to China, you will know what this means.
Now I am a mother to a three-year old boy who has ASD (autism spectrum disorder).
When Eli was just born, my husband had big dreams for him: study at Harvard, marry a beautiful Norwegian girl (he read somewhere that Norwegian girls are the prettiest in the world.) He dreamed of living in a big house with his son who would have a beautiful Norwegian wife and equally beautiful children. That’s a huge dream.
I chose the name Elijah for my son because I had hoped my son would be a wise man, a prophet or a philosopher. I had also in mind how God had sent birds to feed Elijah while he was hiding from those who wanted to kill him. I hoped for my son to be well looked after even when I was no longer around. I promised God I would make my son serve Him. (But a part of me also wanted him to be a spy like Jack Bauer. Crazy, I know. Dual personality.)
As you can see my husband and I had very different dreams for our son. I did have a less idealistic dream, a short-term one, that I kept repeating to my husband whenever we went or passed by the nearest McDonald’s. I used to say to him I looked forward to Eli turning three or four and hanging out with me at McD, eating ice cream. As simple as that. There was no dream of him going to Harvard or marrying a beautiful girl (in fact, I always said I would not want to be around long enough to see him have a girlfriend. I would die of jealousy.) I thought he could go to the same state university I went to in my home country. (My best friend used to tell me I had a small brain with very small dreams. Well…)
Fast forward to when my suspicions about Eli’s condition were confirmed, I thought, “If there is a god, then he is probably having a good laugh about this. He is truly one cruel god.” I never wanted a child because I did not want responsibility. Yet, look what I got. One HUGE responsibility.
But god or no god, I brought this child into this world, he is MY responsibility.
I wept for my son and for the difficult life he has ahead of him; I wept for my husband whose Harvard dreams for my son vanished and was replaced by; “I just hope for my son not to end up begging in the streets.”
If there is one good thing that came out of all this misery, it is that my husband became more realistic about his dreams for my son. In fact they are no longer dreams but weekly or monthly goals for Eli to accomplish. The pain of the reality that we have an autistic son will never go away, but it can be dulled by the the slow but steady progress Eli is making.
All parents wish/hope/want/desire for their children to have a happy, comfortable life. That desire can cause suffering, but it is the kind of suffering that a parent would willingly bear for the sake of the child he/she brought into this world.
It is human nature to desire; and it is inevitable for humans to suffer. But we can minimize the disappointment, the suffering, by not desiring too much, nor wanting too much, nor expecting too much from the ones we care about.
Last night when my husband and I were eating a McD sundae, overacting our enjoyment of the ice cream to make Eli want to eat as well, Eli looked at me and smiled. I prompted him by asking, “Eli, what do you want?” And he replied, “I want ice cream.”
My dream is on its way to becoming a reality.