Published in  
July 17, 2023

Kyah's Courage

Courage is a disability.

You may have heard me tell this story a thousand times before. I'll tell it again.

Once, while walking with my family through a shopping mall in Chennai, India, Kyah - my autistic son - experienced a "big moment." He began to cry, to fall to the ground, to flail. Something in the air put him ill at ease. I tried to comfort him. No. That's not exactly true: I tried to control him, to gentrify him, to insist that he keep the peace of the public order, to save me from being embarrassed by the piercing eyes that now judged me from shooting distances. I wanted to reason with him, to urge him to rise above his malaise - as if the feelings he was enlisted by were merely tentacular appendages of a mechanical rationality he was temporarily out of touch with.

Kyah didn't listen. He couldn't. His mother, EJ, came to help. She asked me to "walk away." I did. And then she laid on the ground next to him - refusing to coax him out of his anguish, to shush him up. She just stretched herself next to him, accompanying him into the thickness of that autistic errancy, offering to hold his hand while she did.

EJ had often told me that his 'meltdowns' were better appreciated as the "passing of a wild god." Later, my dear sister Professor Erin Manning, speaking with the same spirit, would tell me that she often felt jealous about not being able to feel so much.

By accompanying Kyah as she did, EJ traced the outlines of a politics that feels pertinent today, especially now: one that recognizes that the thing to do when a wild god passes is to fall to the ground. And that falling is an act of courage.

I am not a guru. I am a public intellectual who is struggling with and negotiating a difficult exploration of what it means to be a father; what it means to inhabit a world where I also must pay bills; what it means to not have the answers; what it might mean to stay with trouble and listen to the noise; what it means to be affectively enlisted in the production of suffering even when my most eloquent disavowal of these patterns shine brightly; what it means to feel the silent hissing of one's many contradictions - while realizing that offering justifications for their mutiny only enhances their claims on my person.

I often feel stuck. Frozen. Despite my reputation as 'trickster', I know the familiar warmth of the traditional, the conventional, the already-travelled-path. But I also keep sensing the whispering call of the unexplored, the wintry spirituality of the new, the open maw of the monstrous.

If you feel that too, if you sense there's something else, a god in the burning bush, a voice urging you to approach with feet unshod, then you must know that it will take courage to shapeshift. The 'new' needs courage. Courage is not the knight rushing headlong into the flames; courage is not a choice we make. Courage is a disability, the animist strike of a wild god that breaks the thigh and makes you limp. Courage is a lisp. A crack. An autistic child sensing the world at its edges where it is still being made. Courage is meeting 'the heart' - where 'the heart' is the pulsating vitality of things, of ecological things, that bends you into new shapes. One does not "have" courage; one is summoned by it. Anointed by it. Touched by it.  

Something about Kyah's courage comes to me again and again. He didn't choose that 'big moment'; he just could hear the footsteps of that wild god in its passing. My life's work, eminently articulated by EJ's prophetic mothering, is to be so en-couraged that I find myself next to Kyah in ravishing accompaniment.

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