What Do You Care What Other People Think?

When I was a child, Mum was constantly trying to teach me to be mindful of what other people would think of me. “You can’t wear THAT! Tuck your shirt in! Clean your shoes!”

I couldn’t see what the big deal was about. I never noticed whether anyone else had cleaned their shoes or not, and so what if another person’s shirt was half out? That in itself tells me nothing about the person (except that they haven’t checked their waistline in the last few minutes).

Further, I hated branded goods. I would be the last person to choose a polo shirt or a pair of jeans with some big name embossed on it. No, give me plain every time! I found the idea of wearing some big brand name prominently, quite repellent.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that most human beings have a constant nagging voice in their head reminding them to care about what other people think of them, and most human beings make judgments about other people based on their appearance – cleanliness, tidyness and chosen brands. All of this passed me by and seemed most mysterious. What do dirty shoes tell me except that a person hasn’t cleaned them recently – how on earth could I know what their reasons for not cleaning were? Busyness? Poverty? Lack of care? And why do people want to pay more to have a big name on their jeans, jacket or handbag? This makes no sense to me!

Now I have to accept that most humans are hardwired to care about these things whether they want to or not, and that’s the world I have to live in and interact with.

A Nobel physics laureate, the American Richard Feynman, was a colourful and curious character who played bongo drums and published two volumes of personal anecdotes. Significantly, the second volume was entitled, “What do you care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character.” The titular episode concerned discussions between Feynman and his wife about how formal (or intimate) messages on their greetings cards and embossed pencils should be.

I do not share all of Feynman’s traits – he used his lack of social restraint to become a pick-up artist, for instance – but I admire how he was determined to let the American public know why the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed (it was launched in conditions too cold for a critical component in its booster rockets) without allowing the truth to get buried under bureaucratic obfuscation.

Feynman’s writings provide fascinating insights into how people think. He could count either by ‘hearing’ numbers or ‘seeing’ them – I can only ‘hear’ them. He could imagine physics equations as graphical constructs – I could only mentalise them as algebraic symbols to be manipulated according to certain rules. He helped me to understand the kind of intuitive mind that a great scientist has, and therefore why some scientists can see their way directly to solutions when others (like myself) have to go the long way round. I recommend his two volumes to anyone interested in further exploring a mind not entirely unlike mine.

Pathways of Prayer

“If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.” (Benedict XVI)

How does being an Aspie shape the ways I do, or don’t, pray?

When I was a very new Catholic, I was keen on praying the Rosary. Why? Because it was an explicit request of Our Lady of Fatima that we should do so daily (and if Medjugorje was genuine, three times a day). I don’t think I was ever particularly good at meditating while saying the Hail Marys – I have a one-track mind and it doesn’t do well at sustaining meditations while saying Hail Marys in “inner speech” (though I am quite capable of daydreaming during Hail Marys).

Now, 30 years on, I pray the rosary more as a duty than as a pleasure, and always conscious that Blessed Paul VI wrote that the rosary without meditations is like a body without a soul. Usually I just do the set prayers and use the rosary structure to make a sacrifice of time to the Lord (God, I am going to pray for 20 minutes and to stop my mind wandering, I am going to make you an offering of 20 minutes of prayers said). Less often, I will set aside the Hail Marys and spend the period just meditating on the mysteries.

Lectio Divina doesn’t come easily, either. The first time I read a passage of Scripture, I will suck it dry of the different perspectives that can be seen by an educated theologian without recourse to a Commentary. After the first pass, there is rarely more to be gained. I can read in vain waiting for one line to jump out at me. And I dread the kind of a group exercise where participants are encouraged at a certain point to ‘speak out the line which spoke to you’ – what is the point of that? If each person gave a quick summary of what the line was saying to them, that would be enriching for me. But to know that a line means something to someone without knowing what it means – that’s an exercise in prolonging the agony, especially when I have no ‘anointed’ line to throw into the mix.

The Divine Office is mostly poetry, but not the sort that rhymes or scans. I suppose a Catholic with an active ‘feeling centre’ will make an emotional journey as they pray the Office, being drawn into the highs and lows of the psalmist . But for this Aspie, they are words to be said, words to be said every month on a repeating cycle. Most fresh meanings were sucked out of them many years ago and so, like the Rosary, saying these words becomes mostly a means of dedicating a chunk of time for the worship of God.

I enjoy saying Mass. Probably the technical performance aspects appeal most – am I making the best use of the variety of options in the Missal? Am I singing the parts that should be sung? Above all, there’s the satisfaction of doing the thing Jesus told us specifically to do. Even when travelling, I find myself strongly motivated to say Mass every day, even when other forms of prayer feel tedious.

My favourite way to pray (the Office, Rosary or informally) is in a small group of two or three, where the accountability stops you getting distracted but recitation by a single voice can add emotional weight to the words spoken, without resorting to the drone needed when multiple voices are saying a Psalm or a decade of Hail Marys. I also enjoy charismatic worship, both singing worship songs which rhyme and scan, and singing in tongues (a spiritual gift God granted me more than 20 years ago).

I am well aware that there is a common pattern of lifelong development faced by people who pray, going through dark nights of the senses and of the soul, where prayer brings no consolation. For me, since about the time I was ordained, prayer has felt like sharing a house with a Dad who works nights – I know he is around but we tend not to bump into each other, he just leaves me the occasional post-it to find on the fridge door!

I don’t want to be the kind of rigid priest who performs devotions out of duty and experiences only aridity. Yet in this state of darkness the options seem to be a choice between arid prayer and no prayer at all. I’ve written already about how I prize principles over consequences,  and for that reason I will be drawn to practice forms of prayer ‘required’ by ordination promises or private revelation. Yet if I were trying to go by consequences, I am hard pressed to find a form of prayer with positive consequences right now. I wonder how prayer works for other Aspies?