I think the most difficult aspect of living with a chronic condition is maintaining hope. As a pastor, I have been a fellow traveler with many people through illnesses and conditions that had no prospect for improvement, and watched them confront that reality. As a father of two sons on the autism spectrum I have been on a journey of discovering from the inside what it is to live with a situation that changes, but does not resolve. If hope is desiring something with an expectation of attainment or arrival, chronic illnesses or conditions that we will carry to the end of our days would seem to crush hope. For hope to have any weight against such a force, it must have a quality or substance which is beyond what we measure in the world of time and matter. This idea forms a kind of lens through which I have seen much of what I observe or experience for many years now. It is through that lens that I found the new television show “Touch” to be so disappointing.
I have been trying to write about this for more than a week, since Fox premiered “Touch”, featuring Kiefer Sutherland. When the show was first promoted, it was about a kid with autism and his dad, but by the time the show got to air, there was a clear attempt to back away from that idea (in the pilot, there is a scene where a social worker refers to the boy having autism, and the father responds that there are several labels that have been applied to Jake, but none of them quite fit). Instead, the premise is that the boy has a special gift which enables him to understand and interact with numbers in a way that few can. This gift allows him to see connections between people that are invisible to the rest of us, according to the show’s “guru” (played by Danny Glover), who seems to be an apostle of new-agey pseudo-science.
I was prepared to hate this show. In fact, the first promo I saw on television seemed so trite and simplistic I began to cry with anger. I told my wife I was sure I was going to hate this show, and that I was going to use this and other venues to make that plain. As the show drew closer, I read whatever I could find about it. Then, I watched the show, and realized it wasn’t what I expected it to be.
Which is not to say that I was pleasantly surprised. I was actually even more disappointed than I expected to be. A week’s worth of reflection on it has helped me to see that hope is at the center of much of my disappointment and dissatisfaction.
The show’s back and forth behavior about the boy’s condition is the first problem. The previews of the show prepared me to expect the boy to be more of a plot device than an actual character – an update of the “magical negro” – and the indecision about if he has autism or not continues to feed that suspicion. I read one interview (which I can no longer find) from show creator Tim Kring in which he said that the boy’s autism-like affect was a plot device to help make the story “timely” or “relevant”. However, this interview with Sutherland suggests not only that the autism diagnosis hasn’t been dropped, but there will be a special effort to show autism in an authentic way. Considering that his “autism” enabled him to see the future in the pilot episode, that’s going to be an uphill battle. It is easy to imagine the contours of the boy’s “condition” conveniently matching the needs of future episodes again and again. People (not people with autism, all people) deserve more respect and dignity than to be reduced to plot-moving devices by lazy writers.
Since it has been revealed that Kring has a son on the autism spectrum, I hoped he would understand that. Unfortunately, this is a man with a sketchy history when it comes to creating well-developed and consistent television characters. As was the case with his last show “Heroes”, the early returns suggest that the story he wants to tell is the big thing, and the characters will fit into that story, coherently or not.
The story Kring wants to tell is the second, and larger, source of my vexation. His story – his hope – is grounded in the notion that everything is connected in ways we cannot see and rarely discern. The point of “Touch” seems to be to tweak reality (hence the boy’s pseudo-autism) to emphasize this notion of interconnectedness and purpose in a world that seems to be cruel, random and without meaning. By telling a story with harrowing and heartbreaking notes which ultimately resolve into a coherent and hopeful chord revealing cosmic purpose, Kring is trying to give hope to the hopeless. In fact, Sutherland referenced that hopeful thread in one of his interviews when he said “wouldn’t it be great if the world worked like that?” The fact that it doesn’t – unless kids with autism actually are super-evolved inter-connectors – means that this is a hope that can’t last past the end of each episode. It’s a fairy tale.
My family’s life is no fairy tale. It is also not hopeless. My sons are magnificent, and each of them is advanced in their own ways, and each of them finds it almost impossible to do things that virtually everyone else takes for granted. Sometimes our life together is beautiful and laughter-filled and awe-inspiring. Sometimes our life is ridiculously complicated, and after years of it still causes me to cry with frustration. But through it all, I have hope, and it is grounded in this: Jesus is Lord. Every time I try to tell you why that’s enough hope, my sentences fall apart, but it is true. And when this life is over, Jesus will still be Lord. And whatever we become, in this life and beyond, Jesus will still be Lord. Our troubles may be chronic, but they are not eternal. Thanks be to God.