This article was originally published in The Huffington Post on June 13, 2011.
I come from a family of achievers and changemakers. For generations, we've been accomplishing big things. Now my wife and I are parents to 10-year-old twins who have autism, and who often struggle to make it through the day. Our family has been through plenty of agony and disappointment over the last 10 years, and yet our twins are teaching me something important about life, about love and about what it means to be human.
I am learning about a love that is not tied to performance or accomplishment. I am learning about love, just because.
My family story is a bit unusual. My grandfather founded Baskin-Robbins ice cream company. My dad, John Robbins, grew up with an ice cream cone shaped swimming pool, and the constant task of sampling and evaluating new flavors of ice cream. He was groomed from early childhood to join the family business. But when he was in his early 20s he walked away from the company and from any access to the family wealth to follow his own rocky road, moving with my mom to a little island off the coast of Canada. My parents grew most of their own food and lived on less than $500 per year. In time our family moved to California, and my dad went on to become a bestselling author, writing "Diet for a New America" and many other books. The media called him the "rebel without a cone." We received more than 100,000 letters from enthusiastic readers thanking my dad for his work and saying how it had touched their lives.
When I was growing up, I was precocious. I organized a peace rally in elementary school, started a home business when I was 10 years old, and was founding and directing a seven figure non-profit organization by age 16. I knew my dad was very proud of me, and he appreciated my accomplishments very much. But he would often tell me that he loved me for who I was, and he appreciated all that I did because it was an expression of me. I always felt his unconditional love and support and I also knew that he didn't want me to be burdened by overly high expectations. He probably told me a hundred times that he would love me just as much if I were autistic.
Now I'm a father, and my kids actually are autistic. When my wife and I became pregnant with identical twins, we imagined them as some kind of dynamic duo that would be by our sides helping us change the world by the time they were out of diapers. But at age 10 ½, they are still in diapers and instead of discussing world events together, I spend hours answering their obsessive, repetitive questions.
I have found out that although we have very different children, my dad and I have something huge in common as fathers. We both love our children unconditionally.
I am learning to delight in being with my kids. Not because they appear to be on the fast-track to enormous worldly accomplishment. And not even because they are kind, loving, and good-hearted people. No, sometimes I love my kids just because. Just because it is mine to do. Just because I choose to fill my heart with an ineffable, unstoppable and totally undeniable love that persists and sustains no matter what my children do. The ocean refuses no river, no matter where that river has been or what it might have picked up on its journey. So, too, as if in some great law of nature, I am learning about a love that is utterly unconditional. Of course, as a dad, I have hopes and fears for my kids. When they do something generous or wonderful, my heart swells with pride. When they struggle to write their names or scream uncontrollably for an hour, I can feel depressed and overwhelmed. But I am learning about a love that is bigger than all that.
As unconditional love has found its way into my heart, as I have contemplated what it means to really love someone just because they are, I have found myself wondering what it would mean to direct that concept inward. What would happen if I loved myself just because? Could I imagine loving myself just as much if I suddenly woke up one day autistic? Is love for oneself or another a strategic investment in what we hope they will accomplish, do for us or bring to the world? Or is it enough to just, simply, love someone?