An Aesthetic

“Do you have any hobbies?”

This was, and still is, my most feared question in any kind of formal interview or informal introduction. It usually leads on to questions about sports, music, or the arts in general. But I’ve never been interested in any of that stuff – and now I think I know why.

Supporting a sports team is about emotional engagement. Terry Pratchett captured the power of ‘the Shove’ (crowd of supporters) very effectively in his football-centered fantasy novel, Unseen Academicals. But when your ‘feeling centre’ is usually off-duty, it’s hard to get passionate about a particular team.

The visual arts are mainly about emotional communication. But I am not receptive to the emotional message of a piece of sculpture, a painting, or a ballet. If there is a language that can be learned, I can study that – and I can meditate on an icon with the help of a guidebook on the conventions of Christian iconography. But that’s a question of analysis by my ‘thinking centre’.

Music? I ‘get’ that minor chords feel sad and major chords feel happy. But beyond that, the emotional language of music is lost on me. Yes, I can recognise cinematic conventions so that the music can warn me that a dastardly act is about to be committed, but music shorn of words or images cannot communicate its emotional story to me. If there are words, they need to be intelligible. I do enjoy singing traditional hymns and modern worship songs, but those that have emotional weight for me do so because of a context in which I first heard them. I don’t often put on background music, but when I do, it will probably be Rich Mullins or the Maltfriscans.

Film and Theatre? If it’s the kind of movie where the climax has a hero risking life and limb to ‘do the right thing’, I will probably shed a tear or two at that moment. My feeling centre does wake up when my thinking centre alerts it to high-stakes righteousness. Similarly in novels… I remember reading The Hobbit during school break time and crying at the point where Thorin dies. A prefect came along and asked who had been bullying me… he wouldn’t believe I was crying for the emotions in a novel!

Poetry? I appreciate form over emotion, so give my poetry that rhymes and scans, and ideally has a funny message. Dr Seuss or Edward Lear? Yes please. Blank verse? Eurgh.

In short, I don’t support any football team, nor do I have a favourite pop musician or classical album. I do like reading novels and watching movies. I will pay to see the latest action-adventure in the cinema, especially if it’s the latest instalment from Marvel, but will probably wait for the Rom-Coms until I am having a quiet evening in front of the small screen. Am I boring?

Amazingly, it seems socially unacceptable to not respond to the world of sports or art at all. I could name an artist or team a million miles from your own tastes, and you would have a sense of who I am, but dare I suggest I’m not into any of that? I will be certain to be pigeon-holed as weird. Oops! Wrong planet!

Self-Awareness

Long before my diagnosis as an Aspie, my seminary instructed me to attend a weekend session to be analysed using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. So obediently I went off to a retreat centre where myself, one other young gentleman, and a dozen or so middle-aged women had turned up.

On the Friday evening, we all filled in detailed questionnaires about ourselves. The instructor took them away to analyse overnight. The following morning, I learned that my type was ‘ESTJ’ – more specifically, E1 S5 T21 J47.

What does this mean?  I was underwhelmed to learn that I have very strong tendencies towards relying more on thoughts than feelings (T21 on the Feeling-Thinking scale) and planning activities in detail well in advance (J41 on the Judging-Perceiving scale). More interestingly, on the Sensing-iNtuition scale, my score of S5 indicated only a small tendency to rely more on sensory data than intuition – a less marked trait than I would have predicted in advance.

Interestingly, I was almost neutrally balanced between being an extravert and an introvert (E1 is close to zero on the Extraversion-Introversion scale). In Myers-Briggs terms, this is not about one’s personal charisma, but a measure of whether you feel refreshed by spending time alone or in the company of others. Well, I know from experience that the best kind of holiday for me is one where I can spend half the time with friends and half doing my own thing, so that matches my score pretty well.

I returned to seminary with an established type of ESTJ, but not being much wiser than before I went. I couldn’t really see the point of the exercise – being assessed with a Myers-Briggs tool led to me discovering that I am exactly the kind of person I thought I was. I think the other young man on the course was similarly unimpressed.

But what truly shocked me was the impact on the ladies. When they got their personal reports, it was all, “Gosh, wow, am I really like that? I never realised!” And I could see that they were so taken with this powerful new insight into who they were, that they would be quite ready to part with hard-earned cash to do whatever follow-up courses might be on offer: Myers-Briggs and Your Marriage, Myers-Briggs and Prayer, Myers-Briggs and Teamwork… the possibilities were almost limitless.

Knowing what I now know, could it be that the cacophony of competing emotions and the inner critic stop most typical humans from being able to see clearly what ‘type’ they are in the way I can? Probably. A mind which spends most of its time living out of its reasoning centre will have a consistent output and clarity of introspection. A busy mind with competing emotion will have increased fluctuation of focus and lower self-attentiveness.

I am still unsure of how knowing my MBTI® type can really help me. Knowledge of personality types may be useful in defusing conflict in group dynamics – but usually you won’t know the types of the other people in your group. If I were hiring a team to work with me and could pick people with complementary types, that might be of some use – but in church leadership you usually have to manage with the volunteers you’ve got.

I do wonder whether MBTI® could work as a diagnostic tool for autistic traits? I’m ESTJ (but could easily be ISTJ). Some research might point to Aspies tending to be INT* or at least I*T* – though others question the validity of the tool in the first place.

Note to Psychologists: please consider whether a strong score for J & T in a MBTI® score could be a good proxy for diagnosing autism, and act accordingly.