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Going the Extra Mile

Going the Extra Mile

Sometimes you don't know how far you can go until you're pushed to get there.


When my son Yehuda was born with Down syndrome, I knew my life was about to undergo a change, but somehow I never imagined anything like this. Here I was, three years later, sitting in a neurological development center for children, with my wonderful little boy who was walking, running down ramps, climbing up slides, saying about 1,000 words, a bunch of short sentences, following three-step requests easily and understanding everything. Pretty good, right?

But all I was getting was a disapproving shake of the head from Matthew, the center's director.

"Sure, he's a cute little guy and he's doing nicely, but he could be doing so much better. You need to push him beyond his comfort level."

He was referring specifically to a part of their very intensive developmental program called the anti-gravity device. It's a harness, connected to bungee-like rubber ropes hanging from the ceiling, within which a child is placed and swung, flipped, cart-wheeled, rotated and pirouetted in all directions for various amounts of time and in varying degrees of intensity. Apparently, astronauts undergo a similar training program before heading into space, where they learn to overcome the natural nauseous feeling that hits when in a non-gravity environment, enabling them to control their movements in space with greater efficiency.

My son isn't planning to be an astronaut (just yet), but he was being put through this swinging "training" in order to develop vestibular function: coordination and balance and the ability to eventually defy gravity by will, i.e. jumping, hopping, skipping, running for long distances. He loved this particular part of the brain-development program -- squealing in delight and laughing and singing as he flew and flipped and somersaulted in all directions. I proudly recounted to Matthew how obviously well our son was doing (and we, in executing these jumping shenanigans) and this is when I received the aforementioned frown.

"You need to up the ante to the point where he's a little uncomfortable and apprehensive."

"He shouldn't be laughing and enjoying himself while being flung about like that," he started to explain. "Think about it. You and I would be throwing up after three minutes of those acrobatics. The fact that he's enjoying it means his brain isn't getting it. His cerebellum is not yet growing and developing enough to reach the kind of coordination and balance he's going to need to function normally. You need to intensify the swinging, up the ante to the point where he's a little uncomfortable and apprehensive. That would be a good sign."

I don't know much about brain development, but as a parent trying to maximize her child's potential, it made sense. Just as your muscles don't develop if you don't work up a sweat, lift weights and push yourself, a child's brain needs to be pushed beyond its comfort level in order to create new circuits and neuro-connections.

It made sense on a spiritual plane as well. Since the Torah is the blueprint of creation, everything in the physical world represents a concept in the spiritual realm. The mishna in Ethics of the Fathers states, "According to the effort is the reward" (Ethics of the Fathers, 5:26).

Complacency is the enemy of spiritual growth. To the extent you strive to go against your instinctual response and make the more difficult choices, you develop new spiritual capacities, create new soul-circuits. If you just coast along through life, laughing and squealing in delight, you don't build up your spiritual muscles.

I called Matthew a few weeks later to inform him that Yehuda was now quite unhappy with the intensified version of the swinging routine, whimpering and complaining as soon as we hooked him up. Should we stop or slow it down again?

"Stop? No! That's wonderful news!" he said. "Keep the swinging at that level -- that's perfect. Yehuda is now growing those new vestibular connections in his brain. You guys are doing a great job. And you know what," he added, as if to impart a wonderful secret, "the more effort you put in, the more Yehuda will develop and function as a regular kid. There's nothing stopping him. It's all up to you."

It's all up to you... Forget the pat on the back or the permission to slow down a bit. Matthew was raising the bar higher. He wasn't only breaking Yehuda's comfort barrier, he was pushing me and my husband to go beyond our own self-imposed limitations.

In this rigorous, all-encompassing program that we have undertaken in order to proactively develop our child's brain, we've had to stretch and flex not only our physical muscles, but our spiritual muscles as well. Along with a fair share of patience I know I did not have previously, I've been forced to develop a greater sense of humility in realizing that I cannot control or accomplish anything myself -- only the Almighty brings about results. I have learned to appreciate more than ever the power of prayer. I have come to realize that my grandiose dreams of changing the world on a public scale are not nearly as important as working to help my little boy -- unobtrusively and privately -- as well as my other children, to actualize their potential.

The last couple of years may not have been comfortable, but I have often felt a sense of true satisfaction and exhilaration that comes with doing something important and meaningful. It's as if the effort itself was generating the energy necessary to continue, kind of like the rush you get after an hour at the gym.

Could the soul produce endorphins?

August 25, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) Anonymous, September 9, 2007 3:48 AM

This was a wonderful story and touched my heart deeply.

This story has given me the "uumph" to push myself harder to do the spiritual things I believe in.

Thanks for such a wonderful and touching story about little Yehuda and his wonderful parents who continue to raise the bar to see more and more growth in their precious son.

(9) Anonymous, September 2, 2007 1:43 AM

Scary but excellent and truthful.

(8) Michal, August 30, 2007 11:33 AM

You can be happy to live n o w

Dear Dina, I was impressed with your article and I learned from it for my own way of being cared for by Hashem.
Of course he very often gives me opportunities to develop my spiritual capacities.
But why did I write on top, that you are happy to live now? When I was young, about 50 years ago I worked in a
town where there were 7000 mentally ill people. And when I think about all the children or grownups with down syndrom - nothing was done with them. At that time the scientists were not as far as they are now. What we did with them? Nothing. Everybody thought, that they were not able to learn or improve. So all we could do was loving them (which was not difficult, as they
are capable of loving more than normal children)So they stayed just as they were, when they were brought to us. Only growing up. And life was hard for them, when they were not the sweet little ones any more. They were burdens for their families and brought into the home for the mentally ill.
When I now read, what is possible to do with them, how to help them to develop, I feel glad for you (and feel sad, that "our children" did not have the ability to develop their potential.) I think, Hashem must feel sad in a similar way, when we ourselves do not grow. -
But we are in the state, that we can improve. He gave us all instructions we need in His Torah. - All the best for you and your little boy! Be blessed!

(7) Joanne Asher, August 28, 2007 11:20 AM

my thoughts precisely

I can't write as well as "Liba", but she expressed my thoughts precisely. Thank you so much for the article. May HKB"H continue to give you and Nechemia the strength to accomplish the wonders that you are both accomplishing. In your struggles and with your positivity , you are helping so many.

(6) janet, August 27, 2007 10:26 AM

hmmm...a thought

Beautiful, adorable child, caring involved mom, intellegent, advice by a committed,learned individual who seeks to draw out the potential in each individual of all situations, so why do i think hmmmm?! Because i believe that in the joy of this young Judea (in whose i noticed no visual features of Downs Syndrome, if he is the little fellow in the photograph) expresses in the bouncing is as beneficial and therapeutic as rigorous challenges. Also, regarding this statement,""He shouldn't be laughing and enjoying himself while being flung about like that," he started to explain. "Think about it. You and I would be throwing up after three minutes of those acrobatics. ", I would like to point out that at 56 years old, i would get dizzy from simple stinning, a sensation i loved as a child, and loathe now, so i feel that particular comparison is flawed. Realizing there is need for extra stimulation for some children who might not seek it out as those with normal (conventional meaning) developmental potential should not, i hope, mean it must always be outside the realm of personal comfort. Perhaps it is true that all of us can achieve more if pushed in such a manner, but it is also so that we miss something perhaps just as important. I think there are different levels of accomplishment and different means to it. My husband learned to swim at 5 when his father and uncle through him overboard and made him swim after them. He learned how, and now only goes into the water to cool off, and is uncomfortable over his head. No one forced or cajoled me. At 7, frustrated with always needeing to hold someone else's hands, i filled the bathroom sink with cold water and opened my eyes. The next day, i swam for real, and haven't stopped since. I am not fast or professional, but am relaxed in any depth of water for any length of time-the pleasure is still there for me. I hope the featured child always delights in life, movement and an intact trust in people and develops his potential a a human being. He seems to have a good start, surrounded by great people, family and director.

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