The Mystery: Redefining Weird and Normal

by Jennifer Paros

May 2016

Until we accept the fact that life itself is found on mystery, we shall learn nothing.

~ Henry Miller


My youngest son was diagnosed as autistic years ago. There’s no blood test or scans for autism; the conclusion is behaviorally based. A person is observed and if he exhibits enough patterns that are considered markers of the condition, we give him the label. Early on, his neurologist was frustrated when other professionals inferred our son was autistic. He said that just because our son was demonstrating some “flag behaviors” didn’t mean he was autistic. He referred to our son as a “mystery.” And that was fine with me. I preferred the word mystery; it implied more discovery than limitation.

A couple years ago, my son and I were volunteering at a cat adoption site in a pet store. One of the workers there took an interest in him and had been lovely to both of us. Then one day she quietly asked me (alone) if he was autistic. I found myself stumbling through my answer. I realized that though he’d received a label, I’d always felt it was my job to see him unlabeled. For me, the label felt like someone’s compromised first impression.

Often, names or categorizations are applied long before we have understanding. And there are side effects to our conclusions – one of which is that our capacity to perceive the malleability of a situation can be impaired. When we think a conclusion has been drawn, we are inclined to stop actively imagining and expecting more. Life is fluid and the possibilities of change are greater than momentary conclusions can reflect. We could declare children ages 0-5 (unable to read or write) illiterate but we don’t. Though technically true, the label feels inappropriate because our expectation is that they will change and learn.

Conditions perceived as wrong (or unwanted) are in a process, just like everything we judge as right. The hidden or invisible part of this process is the mystery part of life. We want answers, which is natural and necessary, yet answers imply doneness, and living people are never done. Evolution doesn’t wrap up; we are each involved in and a byproduct of an ongoing unfolding – a lot of which is unseen. This mysterious unknown is where hope resides and from which creativity is born.


Mystery is at the heart of creativity.

~ Julia Cameron


When we create we begin in an enigmatic field. Creating isn’t like putting together a cake mix, in terms of predictability and specified instructions. Though we have access to the ingredients, there is greater uncertainty. That uncertainty is a result of the unknown everyone encounters while starting anything new. Not knowing is the warehouse for original material. The blank beginning at the start (or middle or end) of a project can feel unnerving but is essential to the discovery and learning that makes a story, picture, or any creative product dynamic.

Sam Berns was born with progeria, a rare genetic disorder that causes rapid aging and death in the teen years. There is not much less “normal” than progeria, yet in his Ted Talk, Sam shared his Philosophy for a Happy Life. He told of the shift from perceiving his condition as preventing him from doing things, causing early death, stressing everyone out – to seeing it as just “an abnormal protein that weakens the structure of cells.” For Sam, the label of progeria remained, but the power he gave it changed. He allowed the undiscovered unknown of his life to inspire him and supersede a known idea that implied great limitation – and he lived a happy life.

Defining terms, labeling, and concluding are useful, but they can never answer the question “What is possible for me?” And if they distract us from that exploration, they’re more detrimental than anything else. If a child asks, “What am I?” whether they’re told, “You’re normal; you’re weird; you’re autistic; you’re funny; you’re a genius” – the exploration of the mystery of his life remains his own. Though whether or how he goes about it is his choice, interest in the mystery always has the power to emotionally override the limitations of what is already known.

I’ve come to see mystery, that which we don’t yet understand or can’t explain, as the best label – not just for my son but for all of us. It has the power to change the story that things are happening to us, to the story of us discovering life. What’s not yet understood is our invitation into the richness of our lives, our creative potential, and who we really are.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at