Speaking on autonomy
by ROB COOMBS, ID. Min. Ph.D.
Aug 05, 2012 | 873 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
From time to time, I seem to get stuck on a certain concept. I find myself dwelling on the concept, trying to understand it better and how it applies to our everyday lives. The most recent concept that I have been stuck on is “autonomy.” Autonomy is the ability to remain a separate self. To be autonomous, a person must first and foremost have a sense of self (in other words know himself) and second be able to hold on to that sense of self in relationships with others. This is far from easy to achieve. The pressure to conform to the expectations of others is always present. It’s easy to be constantly reacting to the world around us and lose not only who we are but also what we really want out of life for ourselves.

This challenge could not have been any greater than it was for Chang and Eng, Siamese twins born in Meklong Siam, Thailand. (The word “Siamese” originated with these twins from Siam.) Both twins were completely formed except for a protrusion as thick as a wrist several inches in length that joined them at the center of their chest. Imagine trying to live a life as a separate self physically connected to someone!

During adolescence, they were brought to America as part of a sideshow for P.T. Barnum Circus. Before arriving, they both learned to speak fluent English and even developed a love for poetry. In short order, they became weary of being displayed as freaks and left the circus setting up their own around-the-world tours as entertainers. By the age of 28 they decided upon a more peaceful lifestyle and settled down in North Carolina as farmers. Between the two of them, they developed a double-wide plow to work their fields and learned to chop wood by alternating swings of their axes.

Eventually, they met and courted the local pastor’s two daughters, and despite the outrage of the local community, married them. Between the brothers they worked out an ingenuous plan for their separate but joined marriages. Each brother had his own home. In fact, they actually built one of the two-story homes themselves, learning to climb ladders together, saw and nail together. Three days the brothers and the two wives would live at one house and then spent the next three days at the other brother’s house. Except when they traveled out town, they maintained this alternating schedule the rest of their lives.

When Chang and Eng were in each other’s house, the visiting brother totally deferred to the will of the other. Thus, the brother at home could come and go as he wished. Although the sexual etiquette between the two brothers was never known, it is known that Eng produced six boys and five girls while Chang had three sons and seven daughters. At age 60, Chang suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right arm and leg. For three years, Eng literally supported his disabled brother. Chang died at age 63 and his brother followed him two hours later.

Did they have their differences? Of course! At least on one occasion they even got into a fistfight. Chang could be more irritable and hot-tempered then Eng, but both were generally known for being very peaceful and understanding; their relationship expressing the essence of mutuality and self-management. There was one remarkable exception. Chang was a severe alcoholic and Eng was a teetotaler.

Could there be a more amazing story of how two people held onto their autonomous selves? I don’t think so. If Chang and Eng could be up to this challenge, then why can’t we?