Another Experience of Life

Nothing that results in human progress is achieved with unanimous consent. Those that are enlightened before the others are condemned to pursue that light in spite of the others.

Christopher Columbus

I have just been re-reading my posting Aristocracy of the Spirit written in May 2014 when I had only vaguely heard of Asperger Syndrome. I was writing from a purely philosophical point of view, and I was quite amazed to find my same reflections from that point in time. The term aristocracy is taken here in an analogical meaning in a neo-Gnostic mindset concerning the three levels of humanity: spiritual, intellectual and materialist. I was already on about Romanticism, which I see as a reaction to dry intellectualism and soulless conventionalism.

I discussed “conventional” religion in that it seems to have run its course and no longer appeals to the materialistic masses. Other highly extroverted forms of Christianity have developed from Evangelical Protestantism, but remain fresh for only a limited time. A minority of humanity aspires to something higher, truer and more spiritual. I have enjoyed reading Berdyaev’s books since when I was up at Fribourg and throughout my seminary days. This Russian philosopher who fled his country to live in France was very emphatic on the freedom of the spirit, the very antithesis of those who oppose the principle of religious freedom now enshrined in the constitutions of most democratic countries and the teaching of Vatican II. Berdyaev expresses something quite prevalent among intellectual Russian Orthodox writers in the early twentieth century: a moderate and orthodox form of Gnosticism and Sophiology, the study of Holy Wisdom.

I find in Berdyaev the very experience I have been through when comparing my life as my family and I know it with a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome (which I distinguish from high-functioning autism on account of my early childhood development being sufficiently normal so as not to cause special concern to my parents at the time). Jung spoke of individuation, coming to terms with oneself in order that one may then be capable of entering into relationships with God and other human persons. I have a suspicion that Aspergers disappeared from the American psychiatric manuals because people had a platform from which to react against the socialism of our times – the tendency to subject the human person to the state or other collective entity. It became an identity label and validated a “selfish” life as perceived by the less empathetic! The same thing has happened in the Church when conscious individual persons are labelled as selfish or refusing to enter into Communion, etc. I quote from my 2014 article:

We lament when the Church imitates the kind of socialism that seeks to crush the spirit in the name of conformity and political correctness, and to quench every last form of spiritual aristocracy.

Here I define socialism, not as an economic doctrine (providing security for the working classes, the poor, the sick and the elderly) but the subjugation of the individual to the collective? Communism is “international” socialism and Nazism is “national” socialism. That is essentially why they were the same thing, and Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler if not worse!

I first began to investigate the possibility of Aspergers in January 2015, just over a year ago. I had heard about this thing in relation with a couple of men with whom I have corresponded, and I began to ask myself the question. I seemed to have a more mature worldview and a notion of the Universal many “aspies” miss, and I seemed not to be so black-and-white and literalist in my interpretation of texts and spoken words. In me, it is much more subtle and my main difficulty is in terms of relationships and social skills. Many of my childhood difficulties have been managed and concealed by experience of life and education.

Man is a social animal, so we learn in scholastic philosophy, but genius has always come from individual persons like composers, artists, writers, inventors and scientists. Even the corporate world is beginning to recognise that the best ideas come from individual persons before bringing them to the collective. Conversely, the dimmest stupidity comes from the collective, like for example a crowd at a football match, a political rally or a rock concert. My condition has brought me to a better understanding of many themes on which I have written like Berdyaev’s “aristocracy of the spirit”.

I should make the point that Aspergers and high-functioning autism don’t make anyone better or superior to anyone else. As in the Parable of the Talents, the talents in question have to be taken to the bank and invested so that the earned interest can be given back to its owner. Aspergers can only be a predisposition for someone who comes to terms with it and follows his heart in the choice of his vocation or purpose of life. We can contribute our talents to God and humanity, or we can spend our lives mooching in our self-pity. As I have mentions (or quoted) elsewhere, holiness and knowledge only come through suffering and being oneself.

Man is a social animal, though in differing degrees on a spectrum. Nothing is black or white, but a shade of something between the two extremes. Those we often call neurotypicals are the majority of humanity whose social behaviour is typical and normative, but some are more part of the collective and others are “introverted” in some way. No two persons are alike, even through empirical observation finds characteristics in common. This posting gives some of my own critical observations of neurotypicals. Neurotypicals have sometimes been typified as “autistic in regard to themselves”: the interior comes from the exterior.

Aspergers people are often considered as emotionally blind (which is not true in the absolute) but many “normal” people are blinded by emotion, recklessness, pop culture, fashion and “groupthink”. The contrast between the aspie’s rationalism and the neurotypical’s emotionalism is echoed in the relationship between mind and heart, reason and faith, rationalism and Romanticism we read about in historic philosophical works. Expressing things in psychological terms may simply be an adjunct to philosophy. To me; Romanticism is not so much an effusion of emotion but rather of the imagination to act as a balancing counterweight to reason.

This being said, aspies, or at least I, are not emotionally flat-lined machines. An important milestone in present-day discussions is the question of the Theory of Mind, debunking the ideas that aspies have no empathy for other people or understanding non-verbal language. I have not had so much the idea of failing to understand other people as the feeling of being overwhelmed by someone’s emotional intensity. An aspie puts up a barrier of silence to protect himself, and the anxiety level is felt almost like a threat to one’s very life, complete with an adrenaline rush. We fear what we do not understand. We are truly awash in the theories of different researchers, and the question will only really be answered by researchers who are themselves aspies and know what it feels like!

Aspies do have emotions. We are not machines. Aspie humour might be a bit raw and tactless sometimes, but not very different from Yorkshire humour. However, we do so often miss the signs people make when they have had enough of me rabbiting on about a favourite subject. My treasure is another’s trash!

Perhaps we can turn the tables a little and find neurotypicals (or some of them) lacking a “theory of mind”, engaged in fashion, being like or above everyone else, babbling away with small talk and blocking up the alleys at the supermarket. To me, theology and liturgy along with music are vital parts of my life. Most people just don’t care. What do they care about? An aspie is very much the “Spiritual” of the Gnostic theory distinguishing between spiritual knowers, technical intellectuals and the materialistic masses. There is a profound alienation as in Gnostic thought. We will find the same theme in the Existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. I have been fascinated by Gnosticism for years but could never quite relate to it. Perhaps modern scientific thought about autism and Aspergers is an “update” of Gnosticism in a certain way, without the mythology of God and the beings responsible for creation and sin, but the one who knows. We have the impression of drifting around in a mass of “other people” whom I cannot understand.

I try to work “other people” out, but I can’t make head nor tail of them, or my judgements are false and deceptive. I am incapable of dealing with manipulators and sophistry! Perhaps we all have our little worlds, our secret gardens, of which we are more or less aware. Some of my readers ask me why I take so much trouble to be rational about everything. It is the way I am. Reason is the means of communication between persons. It is expressed in language, music and art. It is universal and can be understood by all those who are not mentally handicapped. I see the imagination as an extension of reason that englobes beauty and sensuality together with language and logic. It is the imagination that gives an almost magical quality to our creativity.

Naturally, neurotypicals are also rational and abstract, perhaps the kind of rationalism against which Romanticism reacted in the wake of the hecatomb in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They think in terms of relationships. Everything is relative to something else, from whence the word relativism. Aspies view conversation as a means of communicating rational information and submitting it to debate and discussion. Neurotypicals talk with each other to establish relationships. When I went to America for the first time, someone asked me “How yer doin’?” and I thought the person was incredibly friendly and was being amazingly familiar to a stranger. In Kent, I have been called My love or Darling by ladies serving a cup of tea in a café. Since then, I have learned what these usages mean – simply a formula to express a social greeting, not that they have fallen in love with me! In German-speaking Switzerland and southern Germany, people will often greet each other by Grüss Gott without believing in God. These are conventional manners we all have to learn, but aspies will simply keep a healthy distance.

Interestingly, we might be inclined to talk with a person on a given subject without regarding the social and emotional aspects. The difficulties come when it is all about establishing relationships other than friendship, for example pecking orders of status and who is “in” and who is “out”. We need to distinguish morality and ethics from simple conventions and good manners.

Aspies are particularly sensitive to the aspect of thinking independently as opposed to the “groupthink” of the “political animal” of Aristotle. Society at large thinks of human beings in terms of relationships and society, building conventions and unwritten rules. The interest here is not morals or ethics but what is fitting and acceptable according to one’s social status. It is no less true today than in the aristocratic courts of the eighteenth century with the powdered wigs and exaggerated expressions of courtesy! The establishment of status and prestige is less based on merit than control and domination. The end justifies the means.

We eccentrics are more likely to believe is a society of equals based on morality and reason, that persons have political rights and not only groups – from the family to the state. The tendency in society, except for the first few years after a major war, is Fascism: the subjection of the person to the state. There are no individual minds, only relationships. That might seem a sound idea in theology when considering the Trinity and the idea that the relationship constitutes the person. But, the greatest stupidities are collective, not individual. The powerful stack their emotions onto the vulnerable.

We have to educate ourselves in the meanings of facial and other non-verbal expressions, to try to be sensitive to the emotions of others. The alternative would be to condemn ourselves to a life of solitude, a kind of “suicide”. What we have to do is to limit what we assimilate in terms of emotions expressing morality. We cannot expect other people to understand our minds and emotions.

The aspie’s priority is rational understanding and exploration of knowledge. The neurotypical’s priority is the relationship and everything is in function of that. I would imagine that most aspies and neurotypicals are on something of a spectrum or continuum between the two extremes. I think I certainly am. Perhaps the autistic spectrum runs into neurotypicality in a continuum and labelling becomes much more difficult or even impossible. Psychiatry is a very limited and imperfect science when it is scientific at all, science being defined as certain knowledge a posteriori obtained from repeated demonstration or experimentation and control. I am rapidly transposing these “modern” notions into philosophical ones as having greater universal value. The scientific explanation seems to give some notion of the person’s being rather than simply his beliefs or way of thinking. Validity would seem to come from this idea.

I have often read that the “aspie” world is like another one of those campaigns for equalities, diversity, gay pride, feminism and other issues. It seems to be possible as I read in certain blogs and heard in a conference in Lille. We can’t expect the materialistic world to adapt to our needs, any more than make homosexual relationships as normal as heterosexual marriage. It just won’t happen. The more minorities claim rights, the more the people they are trying to “educate” will blow back.

We might be able to get people to understand us and not think we are completely off our rocker, and they might be brought not to think of us as sick or diseased, or in some way subhuman, but the majority will continue to think in the same old way. The Nazis were successful (at least until their defeat) because they exploited the beliefs of most people of that time: that some people were subhuman and could be sent away somewhere (or killed) without a second thought. This is a fact of life even if some lessons have been more or less learned since 1945. It is for us to establish some kind of interface with society by having good manners and treating others as we would have treat us. That is a fundamental natural law expressed in the Scriptures and all principles of jurisprudence.

The notion of spiritual aristocracy can be misleading and seem arrogant. At the same time, Mozart’s music is of a higher plane than modern “pop music”. Beauty is objective and requires elevation of mind. There is no comparison except the presence of some harmony, melody and rhythm. The intellectual and spiritual lives are higher than the things we have to do to earn money to live on. Most of my translating work is little more than a factory production line, the difference being that I work at home with little noise and distraction. We are called to humility, to a discreet presence in the world with an attitude of respect for all human beings (and all creation) and universal natural laws, the invisible leaven of which Christ spoke. We are above all called to achieve and be a living proof of our virtue and insight and not to seek to prevail over other people.

This will be my Lenten theme this year…

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