I dedicate this column to my longsuffering wife, who is constantly and at great personal cost teaching me to patiently, lovingly search for hidden wasps. As she can attest, I am a woefully slow learner. Thank you, Krista, and please forgive me.
A few years ago, on a pleasant summer afternoon, I walked with Abby, Daniel, and Luke to the pedestrian bridge in the Greenville Park. The three amigos loved playing underneath it—spying on others’ activities from their secluded perch or pretending to be various superheroes whose interventions were necessary to the earth’s (or at least Darke County’s) safety and prosperity. I was usually relegated to super-villain status and enjoyed such monikers (usually conferred by Abby) as “super-fat man”, “smelly-dude”, and “stoo-pee-doe”. On this particular day I lay on the cool, grassy bank as Abby and Luke gently tossed stones into the rushing water. Daniel was mesmerized by something embedded in the ground and seemed content. As I closed my eyes and turned my face toward the sun, Daniel suddenly interjected “Hey! Stop!”
Confused, I opened my eyes and looked at him, expecting to see Abby or Luke teasing him in some fashion. Not so: Abby and Luke were twenty feet away and oblivious to Daniel’s growing discomfort. A few seconds passed and he grew more adamant and upset. “Stop it!” he cried, and he flailed his arms at the air wildly. “That’s really bad! Really! You’re hurting me! STOP!” he screamed at invisible marauders. What was going on? I wondered. Has my autistic son gone completely ‘round the bend? To all appearances he was hallucinating and behaving like a person breaking from reality. “Daniel,” I said firmly, annoyed that his outburst had interrupted our pleasant outing. “Stop flapping around. Why on earth are you crying? What’s going on? No one’s hurting you. Just settle down.”
“Dad, help me. It hurts. It hurts.”
“What are you talking about, Daniel? Now stop it,” I added. “Or I’m taking you home. I mean it.”
He flailed and wept for another thirty seconds, so I gathered him in my arms. Exasperated, I carried him home with Abby and Luke following behind. He continued to cry and spasm in my arms during our two minute trek home, periodically offering, “Dad, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But it hurts!” As we approached our driveway I set him down and prepared to admonish him further for ruining our good time. Then I noticed a red welt on his neck.
“Daniel,” I asked, my mood shifting rapidly, “what is this red mark?” He sniffled and replied, “It’s where they bited me.”
“Who bited you?”
“I dunno. The things. You know those things? They bited me all over. That’s why I was sad just now. And I want them to stop.”
Biting things? Stop—in the present tense?? My guilt and curiosity converged as I took off his t-shirt, revealing between ten and fifteen wasp stings on his torso, angry red brands that slowly swelled before my eyes. “Oh, Daniel, Daniel. I’m so sorry,” I murmured pitifully. I picked him up and hugged him and continued to apologize. I turned and looked at his shirt, now turned inside-out and lying on the blacktop. Two wasps, stuck in the cotton fabric and bobbing frantically in an attempt to escape, remained—wasps that had wounded Daniel repeatedly while I’d done nothing but berate him simply because I couldn’t see his assailants and didn’t understand his cryptic mode of communication. It was a shameful but instructive episode, one of many my wife and children have had to endure for my long range benefit.
Like everyone, I occasionally encounter people who seem peevish or upset, surly, distracted, unhelpful. To my discredit, I sometimes still succumb to the initial impulse of dismissing these folks as rude, lazy, or incompetent. But in my better moments, and without granting a complete pass to or otherwise “enabling” someone mired in a poor attitude, I consider that each of us is affected at one time or another by wasps hiding in our shirt. And I know that in those instances a touch of grace goes a lot further than a metric ton of (hypocritical) judgment.
Timothy Swenson is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at email@example.com. Viewpoints expressed in these opinion pieces are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.