I believe that joy is contagious and transformative.
At forty years, my son Mark is a man-child. Mark, with both mental retardation and autism, is like a forever four year old, winning over every person he meets with his openhearted greeting and expectation of a response in kind, which he almost always gets.
One of Mark’s favorite activities is riding the city bus around our little town. Mark prefers his own seat – across from the driver in the front, and he dies not hesitate to ask for his special seat. No one has ever turned him down, not even the psychotic man who kept repeating, “I don’t care what Elvis says, I’m not a hound dog.” When asked for his place on the bus, this gentle man, recognizing a fellow traveler, slipped into the adjoining seat with a knowing nod.
Mark makes friends with the bus drivers, so he was particularly interested when he discovered a new driver at the wheel. “What’s her name?” he asked me as she stepped back onto the bus after a break. “Why don’t you ask her,” I suggested. “My name’s Mark, what’s your name?” he inquired, looking at a thoroughly disgruntled and unhappy driver. “Mary,” she mumbled, staring ahead. Not satisfied, Mark continued, “My name is Mark Ladner. What’s your last name?” The muttered response was inaudible. Mark did not give up. After watching Mary skillfully negotiate a few lane changes and stoplights, Mark offered, Mary, you’re doing a good job driving this bus.” Turning to look at Mark for the first time, Mary said straight away, “Why thank you, Mark.” Mark had a new friend and was momentarily satisfied.
At five o’clock, we took on a bus full of weary workers. As folks plopped into their seats, Mark asked Mary, “Can I honk your horn?” “Sure,” she said as Mark, anticipating her agreement, was already standing, performing his ritual of straightening his socks and belt, then pulling up his jeans. Having completed his preparatory rites, Mark beeped the horn on the big steering wheel. Delighted, he turned to the now crowded bus, raised both hands over his head, and shouted, “I did it.” His fellow travelers erupted into applause, smiling as they settled in for the ride home. Mark, unfazed by this affectionate ovation, returned to his special seat.
As I watched my man-child, I could not help but notice how his delight had rippled through the bus like the proverbial rock in a still lake. The bus was crowded, but the load was lighter. Unfazed by what Wordsworth described as “all the dreary intercourse of daily life,” Mark has never lost touch with his inherent goodness and beauty. The purity and authenticity of Mark’s delight drew us into his experience of joy, teasing a smile, quiet laughter, and applause from these tired out travelers. Unencumbered, Mark is doing his part to transform the misery in our world. I, for one, want to be like Mark.
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