Category Archives: AspiePriest’s Mind, AspiePriest’s Story

This is my story, and because of the nature of this blog, it’s the story of how my mind works.

An Ill Wind

It was only while I was in seminary that I discovered that most human beings are well aware of when their bowels are building up gas, and can exert considerable control about when to hold it in as well as when to let it out. I, unfortunately, only become aware of the presence of gas a couple of seconds before it breaks out. At this stage I have only one choice to make – to clench or not to clench. Clenching is just as likely to force the gas out with impressive sound effects as it is to push it in deeper. Not clenching has a good chance of allowing a ‘silent but deadly’ escape. When I sense gas coming, I have only moments to try to judge whether to clench or relax for minimum embarrassment!

I’ve often wondered if there’s any connection between poor flatus control and being autistic. I couldn’t see any obvious link until I discovered recent articles on the distinction between autism and alexithymia, notably this scientific paper which proposes that alexithymia is a general lack of awareness of one’s own body – not just the signs which indicate emotions.

Why do people speak of emotions as ‘feelings’ and associate them with our heart and our guts? There’s a growing body of evidence that for a neurotypical person, awareness of one’s own emotional state is strongly linked to interoception – the human body’s ability to be aware of its own internal states. The speed of one’s heartbeat, the filling or draining of blood from one’s cheeks, the tension in one’s chest or bowels – all of these are associated with particular emotional states, and knowing what one’s body is doing is part and parcel of knowing how one is feeling. So could the inability to know one’s own emotions be due to a particular person having a body only weakly wired for the brain to know its physical state? This would provide a clear link between a lack of awareness of gas in my bowel, and a lack of awareness of other cues which should make me aware of my own emotions.

I also consider myself to be a clumsy person. Nor can I ride a bike – my sense of balance isn’t good enough. Could these be consequences of a weakness in proprioception – the body’s knowledge of exactly how its limbs are placed?

There are other ways, too, in which I seem to have non-standard body reactions. Apparently people ‘feel good’ after strenuous exercise. But they don’t eat food just before going to bed because of the way it makes them feel. But I’ve never derived pleasure from exercise, and never noticed ill effects if I should need to eat late and then go to bed… except in recent months when eating a certain brand of chocolate digestive cookies at bedtime caused me to wake up with trapped wind in the middle of the night. Since that brand of biscuit never caused trouble before I put it down to some change in gut flora.

I simply place these thoughts on the record for future researchers.

The Glass Ceiling

It’s been a long time since I wrote on this blog, after my triumphant Graduation Day. But a graduate is not as skilled as a professor, and I have continued to reflect on my abilities and limitations.

A few days ago I watched the movie Still Alice, a portrayal of a young professor’s decline due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her neurologist commented that intelligent people seem to decline more rapidly with Alzheimer’s – they develop coping strategies to ‘work around’ their memory loss until the disease progresses to the point where they can’t do so any more and their full decline is laid bare. A similar cliff-edge seems to apply to my ability to build close relationships.

I’ve been reading around the subject of alexithymia lately. There’s a growing body of research distinguishing other autistic traits from the inability to know one’s own emotions and identify emotions in others. The term alexithymia literally means ‘no words for feelings’ but also covers the absence of feelings. A recurring theme in alexithymia, which I have also noticed in my own life, is what happens when a relationship grows beyond one’s ability to compensate for not actually having emotions:

Here’s a quote from an article by Emma Young; it concerns the difficulties an alexithymic man, Stephen, began to face in his marriage:

“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected.’ But after a year, it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”

Or consider this comment by Dr Samantha Rodman:

Alexithymics often have a range of canned responses to normal social situations in which empathy is required. They can mimic others’ responses and assemble a repertoire of phrases like, “That must be so hard” and “Awww,” with the correct, imitated, tone. Only an intimate partner will notice that the same responses recur over and over and the pseudo-emotion that is exhibited dissipates instantly.

I’m in an invidious position. Do I care about other people? Absolutely! Am I able to empathise with other people? No. I don’t experience a rich palette of emotions myself, so it’s simply not possible for me to know ‘from the inside’ what another person is likely to be feeling in most situations. I do know, intellectually, that it’s important to come across as sympathetic in certain circumstances, and I do my best to literally ‘make the right noises’ – but this can only get me so far.

Due to covid-19 I am currently residing with some other members of the Catholic community I belong to. In a recent conversation, a person shared a piece of sad news. I said “Aww” in the tone of voice I usually use to indicate compassion. Someone then passed comment that that was my “sympathetic noise”. That’s probably a sign that members of my community have known me now for long enough to notice that I am not expressing a deep heartfelt empathy but doing my best to project a simulation of empathy – because it’s the only way I can communicate that I do care.

Why is it that 30 years after realising I was part of a community of loving, caring humans and nearly 20 years after getting my diagnosis of Asperger’s, that in my circles of friends I am often welcomed but seldom wanted? The people I call friends are happy when I call them but rarely if ever call me? I am wanted for what I can do as a priest, or to fix someone’s computer, but not for the sole reason of my company. That combination of not giving and receiving non-verbal cues, and having a limited understanding of other people’s feelings, combine to mean I rarely appeal to others to rise to the rank of ‘close friend’. If they are wanting to reach out to that one person who gives them empathy in return, it won’t be me. I keep reaching this glass ceiling beyond which I see people who seek out one another’s company, but I am never the one sought.

Sometimes it has happened in my life that there’s been one person who has drawn close to me. Usually this is someone who is bubbly, often but not always quite tactile, and tries to build good relations with everyone they meet. I experience this as someone ‘taking an interest in me’. At one level this is true, but at another it’s not very personal because the other person is trying to take an interest in everyone. This becomes a dangerous situation for me, because at my brain is reacting as if this person were signalling a desire for a reciprocal close friendship – and if I am not very careful, I can become over-dependent on this one person. Then I will probably overstep my ability to emulate emotions without realising it. The good-natured friend politely tolerates my increasingly gauche behaviour until I cause some kind of bust-up. And unfortunately, although in more recent years I have tried explaining about my autistic condition and my need for verbal feedback, such good-natured friends turn out to be very reticent about giving any negative feedback until a pinch has become a crunch!

42

Recently I went out for a meal with a friend who is also a science graduate, and our conversation turned to deep matters. My friend was pondering our insignificance as creatures on a tiny planet in a single galaxy in a vast cosmos. Did our lives have meaning?

This proved a golden opportunity for me to gain another perspective on the question whose interpretation has always foxed me, the question of whether life is the kind of thing which actually has meaning.

For my friend, a fellow Catholic, if there were no afterlife, there would be no cosmic consequences to our moral actions; then, the only consequences of our human acts would be ephemeral memories which are mostly wiped out when our generation of friends is dead, and totally obliterated once our sun goes nova – if the earth hasn’t already been destroyed by some other cosmic catastrophe.

I looked at things differently. What is the difference between performing an act of kindness, and not doing so? The most precious memories of my life are a handful of times when someone has communicated affection to me powerfully. If those friends had not done the affectionate things they did, I would not have those memories. Each memory is a jewel, and given the choice of having no jewels or a handful of jewels, I am surely better off to have a handful to cherish.

For my friend, these kinds of memories were ‘insignificant’, because once I am dead and gone, they will be in the past. They are not a lasting legacy. Compared to the size and duration of the Universe, they are infinitesimal.

For me, these are peak human-scale experiences in my human-scale life. That matters. I am not comparing them to the Universe at large – only to the alternative of “no such experiences”. Something is infinitely more than nothing, even if the same something is infinitely less than everything! My friend compared himself to the vastness of the Universe. But I myself am vast compared to the millions of millions of bacteria in my body, and the trillions of trillions of atoms of which I am composed. I live at the scale between atoms and galaxies – which is (thank you JBS Haldane!) exactly the right size for a human being!

I love teaching and helping others. If I had not started believing in God, I think I would still have lived a life where the things that made me happy also happened to help other people. Helping others is not ‘insignificant’ to me or the others involved.

I do sometimes wonder what my legacy will be. What will I leave behind when I am gone? There are some niche scientific papers I authored or co-authored. There is this blog, which I hope will continue to be useful to Aspies and their friends. I wonder for how many decades, if not centuries, it will be archived somewhere accessible? Maybe someone will write a better blog which deals with the same matters with greater insight and wit. If so, it would not bother me for you to read that blog instead because what matters to me is that you are blessed with the best insight, not that you must reap from my personal labours. I write in case for some readers, right now, this might be the best currently available.

You can read everything above without Christian faith being relevant. Add faith, and my legacy increases. By my preaching and celebrating the sacraments, I will have affected whether certain souls will spend eternity in heaven rather than Hell. My own moral choices will have eternal consequences on Judgment Day when Christ says ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. These things matter too. But if I didn’t know eternal life was real, I think I would be happy to settle for making other people happy in this life as the best consequences I could obtain.

What if I had grown up differently, seeking pleasure through crime, illicit drugs or some other addiction? Those ill-gotten ‘peak experiences’ might have seemed significant to me, even if they blessed no-one else and even caused distress to my family. I seem to remember Robert Spitzer writing of our growth through seeking our own happiness, through the happiness of others, to doing good because we grasp that some acts are transcendently good.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a machine called the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ which causes a person to see how insignificant their life is compared to the universe at large. Perhaps Douglas Adams was grappling with these same questions. When I bade farewell to my friend at the end of the meal, only then did I discover that we had been dining at Table 42!

Three Minute Therapy

Spoiler Warning – if you haven’t seen Molly’s Game, look away now.

Earlier this month I went to see the film, Molly’s Game, tracing the rise and fall of Molly Bloom. The only daughter among three siblings in a highly competitive family, an injury put paid to her hopes of being an Olympic skier. A gap year job unexpectedly found her assisting with, and then running, high-stakes poker games for the great and the good of Los Angeles. With nothing but her wits to assist her, Molly thrived for a time in this environment, but then was drawn into a culture of drug use and overwork and crashed out, accompanied by threats from the mob.

At her lowest point, her Dad catches up with her in New York. He’s a professional psychologist, and since his relationship with her as a dad hasn’t been great, he says he’s there as “a very expensive therapist and I’m here to give you one free session”, which he unpacks as three year’s worth of therapy in three minutes, doing what everyone wished their therapist would do – answer their questions about themselves. But first Molly has to ask the questions.

In fact, he leads her to the first one – “Why did I choose this lifestyle?” He tells her that her true addiction is “having power over powerful men”. Since the film portrayed the decaying relationship with his wife, I found it no great surprise that the second was “Do you think you were a good husband?” But Molly was pressed to come up with the third question and paused long enough for me to realise that I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be. Eventually it came, as her father anticipated: “Why didn’t you like me as much as my brothers?”

Now I haven’t ready Molly’s book so I don’t know how much dramatic license the scriptwriter has taken with this scene, and scriptwriters have the advantage of godlike control over their characters’ words and actions… even so, there’s useful material here for the aspie trying to understand typical human beings.

The middle question is clearly triggered by obvious bad actions. We see the husband cheating on his wife. Easy observation for an aspie – “rules are being broken!” But for Molly, perhaps it’s less about rules and more about her need for security – or her father as a hero-figure. (“I don’t have any heroes” she says.) The first question is about Molly’s motives – and I have commented previously about the power of self-knowledge in the noisy mind of a typical human being. The third is about Molly’s sense of how a significant family member feels about her.

I don’t know how my parents feel about me, except when they choose to put it into words. I know how they act towards me (kindly!), but I’ve never sat down to try to analyse their motives. They don’t share my faith, so I don’t expect their uncritical applause for the things I do as a Catholic priest. I do have a brother. They do treat him differently in some ways, but he’s different from me – he has a mortgage and I don’t – so it’s only fair they support us in different ways. Since I became an adult, I have never considered it my right to receive any particular support from my parents; whatever they do give, I accept gladly as an undeserved gift.

As an aspie seeking to understand human beings, it’s insightful to be reminded of two things. First, most people are conscious of the power-balance in relationships in a way that makes them seek more power – I guess my working model is that I don’t care who makes the decisions as long as they are good and fair; I can lead or follow a competent leader as required. Second, that most people are wired to care about what other people think about them, but especially their parents. As a pastor, that’s doubly important. Just because I don’t have role models or heroes, or expectations of my parents, it doesn’t mean that’s typical!

 

Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

Them and Us

During my summer travels, I visited a science festival – that’s something I’ve always enjoyed since my teens. But now I have an added purpose: when I attend lectures on psychology or sociology, I am also looking out for tips about how typical human beings function. The lecturer explains the facet they are investigating – and now, when I think “I didn’t know some people’s brains worked like that,” I note that this is probably a clue about most human beings, present company excepted.

For instance, I recently heard about a research study dividing 5-year-old children into groups which were identified by wearing a yellow scarf or a green scarf. Immediately the children started identifying with ‘their’ colour, willing to express dislike for those wearing the opposite colour. In a German study, children would keep a secret entrusted to ‘their’ group but quickly betray a confidence about the ‘other’ group.

It’s always puzzled me why I should be loyal to ‘my’ group rather than even-handed to all comers. I would happily identify myself equally as a citizen of my nation, my state, my region and my continent, and regret that international borders mean that someone can’t simply choose to live in my country should they so wish. I see now that this goes beyond the Aspie trait of being extremely principled, but has an added dimension of not being wired to favour ingroups over outgroups.

Another study showed that identity was highly malleable: if you tell experimental subjects that the study is about ‘soccer fans’ then they will show altruism to someone in a rival team shirt over someone in a plain T-shirt because the rival fan is part of the ‘ingroup’. But tell a similar fan that you are studying supporters of their team, and the rival fan is now deemed part of the ‘outgroup’ and not extended the same altruism as you would show those wearing the colours of your own team.

Further, part of the art of being a demagogue is to get a group of people to identify as part of your ingroup, and amplify positive differences compared to ‘them’, whoever your outgroup might happen to be. This drives me to conflict as a pastor: is intentional creation of an ‘ingroup’ a necessary part of being an effective leader of a congregation, or unethical manipulation of souls? Certainly Jesus challenged the Jewish ‘ingroup’ identity by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One final thought, for the researchers: if you are writing a paper about some ‘Them and Us’ phenomenon, do you really want to be cited as ‘Principal Author et al.’? (Think about the Latin…)

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?

Ear, Nose and Throat

When I was a child, I enjoyed going swimming – but every time I went in the water, I got a sore throat afterwards. As an adult, I chose not to swim for many years. Then, on a business trip in a hotel with a swimming pool, I decided to give swimming another try. And – you guessed it! – a sore throat followed as night follows day!

I think I am more susceptible to picking up passing bugs than the average person, but that’s difficult to prove rigorously. Being autistic, I have a tendency to answer a polite “How are you are?” by commenting on my state of health rather than the conventional “Fine, how are you?” – and friends often reply, “Not another cold, surely?” But if the typical human being doesn’t comment on passing ailments so readily, maybe it just seems like I catch more colds.

There is some clinical evidence  (paper, commentary) that autism is linked with increased ear infections (otitis media), so I do wonder if my Aspie body has some special vulnerability to picking up bugs every time I go into the swimming pool. When I was about 30 – long after I gave up swimming – I got such a severe ear-nose-and-throat infection that I lost my balance for 4 weeks, and the doctors had to try four different kinds of antibiotics before they identified one that could clear up my tubes. That was a wretched month, lying in bed because I couldn’t walk anywhere without falling over! For about four years after that infection, I had such a thick production of phlegm that I had to cough – a very hawking kind of cough – to clear my throat every 10-15 minutes. This did not make me popular in company.

On the subject of ears, a word about singing. When I was in school, my music teacher asked me to stop singing, saying I was putting the class off. But at seminary, every student was expected to sing, and I had one-to-one coaching. After about four years, my coach identified a rather unusual problem – I couldn’t resolve the notes in a chord – sometimes I couldn’t even tell which of two notes was higher. To learn a new piece of music, I had to have someone play the basic melody free of all chords and harmonies. Then I could learn the pattern, and would be able to hold it against richer backing music.

I can’t carry a tune easily when a song is written in multi-part harmony. The only time I ever found that easy was when I was seated among a dozen other bass singers in a large music practice – then I could lock on to the people around me and not be distracted by the other parts. But I can’t keep my part in my head when I can only hear the other parts being performed.

The funny thing is, I enjoy singing. I am very attentive to structure, and have the confidence to start the words in the right place, even when they begin at an off-beat most people miss. I also will choose to sing the echo part during a well-known worship song even if there isn’t a lead musician animating the echoes. Those “mechanistic” bits of music I get, and I enjoy – but I have already written about how the emotion of music, for me, is all about past context, not about responding to the emotional narrative intended by the composer.

 

I would value feedback from fellow Aspies, or their parents, reading this blog. In your experience, do Aspies get more sore throats than their siblings or friends when swimming? Do any other Aspies suffer from the same musical fault of not resolving a chord? As with all such anecdotal evidence, a few examples prove nothing. But if this is common among Aspies, it might just be worth clinicians doing a more extensive study to establish of there is a correlation – and if so, to consider why this would be the case.

Faith, Hope and Charity

Continuing my consideration of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, let’s turn now to questions of Faith, Hope and Charity (pages 112-129). These are known as the ‘theological virtues’ – and a virtue is a self-reinforcing good practice which we must choose to work at.

Lewis sees our human existence is a constant balancing act between reason and emotion. Even though we know certain things are true, and should give us security, our fears and other emotions can cause us to panic and doubt. For a new Christian believer, one who has recently become convinced of the weight of evidence that Christianity is true, this new faith will be challenged by an emotional storm – and sooner rather than later. Maybe this is borne of some piece of bad news, or perhaps it is because a powerful desire rises up for something known to be contrary to Christian morals. Daily devotions help reinforce what we know to be true in the face of our changing moods.

One of the perks of being an Aspie is that, having reached the point of deciding that Christianity (and its Catholic flavour) are intrinsically true, my faith is rarely rocked by passing moods. Yes, I have experienced “low spells” in my life where things have been difficult in work and relationships, but these seldom caused me to doubt God’s existence. There’s no passage in the Bible which promises a trouble-free life for Christians – our loved ones will get sick, die, and suffer the misfortunes of earthly existence.

Lewis comments that only those who have come to the point of “surrendering to Christ” will understand what it means to have this experience of deep conversion. This may be experienced in a flash or recognised in hindsight as something that happened immeasurably over years. Often it is borne of confronting one’s utter inability to resist temptation.

For me, there was a key year in the mid-1990s when two things happened. The first was that I was weighed down with the experience of wanting a relationship I couldn’t have, with a friend who was losing her faith. After months of agony, I said to God, “You must carry this burden, I can’t hold it any more.” On that day, I prayed in tongues for the first time. A few months later, having been resisting the idea of the call to priesthood, I surrendered to God and said: “You know best, show me what you want me to do in life – even if it is becoming a Catholic priest.” It was on this day – not the day I became a Catholic a few years before – that I made the intellectual decision to entrust myself to Jesus as Lord of every aspect of my life.

Faith is a virtue – that is, a daily practice to put into place. It means continuing to act according to the teachings of Jesus whatever life may throw at us. To believe is less about knowing things intellectually and more about “putting our trust in” Christ.

Lewis turns his attention to hope. Humans generally experience a longing for “something more”. Whatever we delight in, the delight fades. Some people use their life to chase “experiences” but nothing will ultimately satisfy. Others, more pragmatic, choose to stop “chasing rainbows” and settle for what they have; and may project an air of “superiority” to those they regard as adolescents chasing dreams. Lewis argues that desires exist because there is something capable of fulfilling them, and these unmet human desires are a signal to us that heaven exists. The picture-language used in the Bible to describe heaven merely points to its qualities – music for ecstasy, gold for eternity, crowns for power and splendour.

I’m not with Lewis 100% on the idea that if longing exists, the sought-for thing must exist somewhere in its fullness. I’m sure evolutionary biology can give some account of how a species benefits from a hard-wired drive to aspire – when suitable fruits are there to be harvested, aspiration pays off, and as long as not too much energy is expended on wild-goose chases, this strategy will succeed. But I do think I ‘get’ the idea of this unfulfilled longing. For me, it happens when surfing the Internet randomly – that sense that there is some page out there, just a click away, which has a funnier joke or a more interesting story, if only I knew what to click. I’ll just have to take Lewis’s word for it that music is the best way to experience ‘ecstasy’, as I’ve said before, music just doesn’t connect for me.

As for Christian charity, or love, Lewis is clear that this is a choice, not a feeling. It begins with behaving “as if” you love others and grows into affection for them. This is good news for Aspies! We can’t always feel, but we can choose to do good for others. (It is important, however, to check that our actions are appreciated by others and are not merely what the other person would like if they too were an Aspie!)

Lewis reflects on his very fresh memory of Nazi Germany to see how those who chose to act with friendliness or hostility to certain ethnic groups grew into a genuine love or hatred for those groups, by the very actions they chose to take. For my part, I know there was one occasion in my life when a person I instinctively didn’t like asked for my friendship. I made a deliberate choice to overcome those instincts and am glad to say that person is now a good and worthwhile friend.

As a Lenten reflection, I’ll leave you with this idea from Lewis. Do you doubt whether you love God? Ask yourself “What would I do if I was sure I loved God?” Go do it.

 

A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!