Notes from the Spectrum: Flat

Image may contain: Mark Anderson, sitting and indoor

Take a look at this guy.

I see a face that is fully engaged with the person I'm facing: empathy, compassion, active listening, everything I want my face to convey when I'm in a conversation.

Chances are you don't see any of that. Of course, it's just a still photo. But suppose you were across the table from this face, with this expression, for 45 minutes, and it never changed. You'd see the lips move, you'd hear the voice speaking earnestly about whatever topic was on the table, and it wouldn't be a robot voice. In fact, if you were just listening, without any visual cues, you'd feel like you were talking with a human being who was sincerely interested in everything you had to say, and who was going to great lengths to answer any questions you asked, as well as to respond appropriately to everything you said.

But that face, that calm, still, face.

Ten days ago, I had a job interview. I thought it went very well, and left believing I'd be getting a call shortly with an offer. When that call came the next day, that was not the result at all. The principal who'd conducted the interview was willing to share some notes with me about the interview. While the ultimate criterion was experience--even at fifteen years in education, I know I'm not at full mastery of what I do compared to others in my profession who didn't take fifteen years off to try ministry on for size--there were also comments about my seeming lack of passion for teaching, for this particular district and school, for the town in which it was located, for the profession I know I love. Several days later, I shared this in a counseling session, and my therapist told me he wasn't surprised at all, that in fact, he had been watching the same face since our first session (this was our third), and he saw nothing in that face that told him I actually had any feelings at all about the work I do.

With that, he confirmed something I've suspected for most of my 58 years, but which few people ever had the courage or insight to tell me: my flat, expressionless face blocks me from personal and professional success.

Except for baby pictures, I'm aware of few candid shots in which I'm visibly smiling or laughing. I've never liked how my smile looks in posed pictures--forced, much more robotic than if I just allow my relax into my natural flat expression--but over the years I've done some method work, thinking hard about what it feels like to laugh to get the corners of my mouth to turn up in as unforced a way as they can before the shutter clicks. Sometimes it works; other times, it looks exactly like what it is: I'm making myself do something I'm not very good at.

It's not that I don't feel amusement, delight, enjoyment, warmth, all the things that naturally cause normal people to smile. There's just a disconnect between those feelings and my face. If I'm fully relaxed, the barrier becomes thinner: I probably smile a lot during ComedySportz shows, though in the dark of the sound booth, there's not really anyone who can see me do it. I know I smile when I'm teaching or at play, whether it's peek-a-boo with my granddaughter or a vicious game of Uno with my delightful wife and kids. I can feel myself doing it now just thinking about it--though it's far from a toothy modeling smile.

In stressful situations, though, the feelings recede from my face. This isn't just true in interviews: when I'm dealing with an especially disruptive student or class, I can feel myself pulling back from emotions, stuffing them in a box until a safer time. I've always thought that was to my credit, that not letting children experience my anger and frustration was the more professional approach. In light of the epiphany I've been experiencing for the last week, though, I'm rethinking that.

Consider this: during my second counseling session with this therapist, he pushed my buttons hard. He called into question the very foundations of the feelings I've been having around my departure from my current position. I felt my stomach churning, anger boiling up behind my eyes, myself on the verge of bursting into furious tears or shouted obscenities. I told him about this in our next session, and his response was, "Could've fooled me." There was nothing in my face that conveyed any of those roiling emotions; as far as he could tell, I was as cool as a cucumber, a flat, expressionless statue.

That took me back eighteen years, to an evaluation by the conference psychologist when I was briefly considering returning to the ministry. She told me she had been intentionally pushing my buttons, trying to provoke a reaction, and the fact that I wasn't expressing any anger was actually causing her to become angry. By not taking the bait, by, in fact, seeming to have it just slide past me, I made matters worse.

Going back much farther, to all my encounters with bullies, I can see the same dynamic at work: I would retreat inside myself, freezing in the face of their torment, and rather than ignore me, they'd turn up the heat. They wanted some sign that they were getting to me. I didn't give it to them, so they tried harder.

I think I understood that this was what was happening. At the time, I put it down to ideals I had learned from my pacifist father, with help from the Apostle Paul and ancient Wisdom literature: by not returning evil for evil, I reasoned, I was leading my tormentors to make ever more self-incriminatory choices and thus "heaping hot coals on their heads."(Romans 12:19-20, quoting Proverbs 25:22) The truth is that in the face of violence and aggression, I locked up and dissociated. It's likely I couldn't have fought back if I'd wanted to.

As an adult, I continued to act (or refrained from acting) in the same way, though I now channeled my passivity into acceptance: every criticism led me to consider its possible validity. I soaked up attacks by aggressive peers and superiors by acknowledging any truth I perceived in what they said, all with the flat affect that was my hiding place. Rather than defuse their anger at whatever actions or inactions on my part had led them to come after me, this seemed to make them even more antagonistic. Whether in education or ministry, I found myself mired in conflict despite my best efforts to avoid it.

In the last year or two, I've been looking at the possibility this misguided anger deflection behavior may not have entirely been a choice on my part; that, in fact, it's a manifestation of an undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. That disorder will remain undiagnosed for the foreseeable future, as Kaiser Permanente has rejected my request for a professional psychological evaluation. I have, however, finally come under the care of a therapist whose specialty is autistic children--which may well be why he was so quick to identify my flat affect as at least partly responsible for my disappointing interview last week.

I began this quest because I perceived my work difficulties to stem in part from autism, a condition that, if diagnosed, could grant me protection and accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That possibility is long past gone: as noted above, I can't get insurance to pay for an evaluation, and even if I could, it would be challenging to prove that my chronic difficulties with administrators were grounded in it. My therapist's approach, with both children and me, is to teach us to cope with a world that refuses to view our difference as either a disability or a protected status, but insists we conform with social norms that have little or nothing to do with our vocations.

I'll put it another way: whether I smile, nod, or say "Mm hm" at all the right expected times during an interview says nothing about whether I'll succeed or fail as a music teacher. To get a good idea of that, the interview team would need to see me at work, whether through a video of me with my current students or calling me in for a trial lesson with some of theirs.

Whether that's how the world should work (and, in fact, does in some cases--that's how I got my current job), it's not how it did for this committee, nor the one that interviewed me last Thursday (and you can be sure I was very aware of being visibly and audibly responsive to everything they said to me, though at times it felt like an act). If I'm going to continue to work in this profession for the few years remaining before I retire, I'm going to have to get much more intentional about how I interact with adults, whether they're interview teams or administrators. Whether or not it's fair that I should have to is beside the point: the world does not run on ideals of diversity, inclusion, and acceptance.

Amazingly--and this is certainly one of the main reasons I've found my home in elementary teaching--young children do, for the most part. The primary children I teach take to me from their first lesson from me. Most intermediate-aged children do, too--but not all of them. Some recognize a vulnerability in the flat way I respond to disruption and aggression, and exploit it, even making a game out of what it will take to make me visibly angry. The answer is they won't--but that just makes them try harder, wearing me down in ways they'll never know.

If you're someone I know--a friend, a relative, a colleague, a fellow Orff traveler--and you'd like to talk with me about any of this, I'd be delighted to share what I'm learning about myself, and people like me. I'll likely be far more engaged in that conversation than you've seen me in a long time, perhaps ever. I expect you'll get a good look at the man behind the stoic expression, a man with deeper feelings than anyone knows. In the process, you'll help me with my lifelong task of cracking this shell, and letting the people around me know just how much I love them.


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