Wednesday, 28 March 2012

God, Religion, and Atheism

I have some trepidation writing this, as I fear I may offend some, but recent events, as I’ve said, have compelled me to lay out plainly what I believe. In no way am I trying to ‘convert’ anyone here, or ‘dis’ anyone for believing what I cannot.

I say ‘cannot’, because though I have never been and never will be an atheist, I find more and more that I am largely in agreement with them on many points. Most especially, on the absurdities just about all religions would have us accept as ‘Truth’. Anyone expecting me to believe in such blatant nonsense as virgin births or the world being created in seven days (no-one’s ever explained to me why The Almighty was in such a tearing hurry), will have their work cut out. I believe in evolution, rationality, the workings of reason, and the findings of science. And no, I certainly don’t see that as incompatible with my bone-deep spirituality.

Now some would have us believe a lot of this nonsense simply because “it’s in the Bible” (or some other Holy Book), and that that document is ‘God-given’, Sacred Word Never To Be Questioned. Sorry, but no. Though the Bible (the religious book I am best acquainted with, and yes, I have read it, all the way through) has many lyrical and spiritually moving passages, it also has plenty that is, well, less than inspiring (all those boring begats), or even violent. It’s a human document, and even the most inspired passages have had to be filtered through human minds, with all the prejudices and limitations of their times, and written down by human hands, in language they felt others would understand. Not to mention it’s now known to have had several ‘revisions’. It can be beautiful, but it’s not perfect. Not even close.

I see no more reason to believe in these ancient Jewish myths of creation, etc, or whatever stories the early Christian leaders dreamed up to ‘prove’ the divinity of Jesus, than I would literally believe the Maori legend that Maui fished up the North Island, or in mythical Chinese dragons, or Irish tales about Finn McCool. If I ever did subscribe to such fabulist tales, I outgrew them along with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus. I can understand people believing in those things in a more credulous and superstitious age, but surely nowadays we know better.

On the other hand, my feeling is that when atheists discard God along with religious ideas and concepts of God, they’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Forget, for example, that antiquated image of an Old Man with a long white beard, sitting on a throne on a cloud, up in some mythical heaven, waiting to thunder down retribution on those who ‘sin’. The Infinite Power is so much more than such limited, prejudice- and dogma-ridden ideas.

I find it hard to delineate exactly how I perceive God, as there are no limits on Its nature. It’s the underpinning of the Universe, the Matrix that holds it together, the Source of All Things, the Energy that runs through us all, and the True Nature of all of us. We all come from this Source, and will return to it in the end. A spark of it is in each of us, usually slumbering, sometimes burning bright, often seeking, though for what, the seeker often doesn’t know. God is present in mountains and trees, birds and fishes, oceans and stars, in everything and even in the spaces between. God is present in you and me. God is.

God is Infinite Love. Unconditional, immense, limitless love. Most people have no idea how huge that love is. I have touched the merest fringe of it, just a few times, and each time it blew me away. I had always ‘believed’ before, from then on I knew. God is also Infinite Wisdom, lovingly guiding us and supporting us through the trials of our lives, in ways we usually don’t see. God can be seen as impersonal, a Force or Power, or in a more personal way, as the Perfect Father or Mother (The Infinite is beyond gender), the most wonderfully supporting Best Friend, or whatever else you want. And The Infinite will wait for you until you’re ready. There’s no hurry. (I also believe in reincarnation and karma, so I know we don’t have to rush to ‘get it all done’ in this lifetime.)

Moreover, I believe that God doesn’t judge. Humans judge, humans define ‘sin’, usually to suit themselves, and set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner for those who ‘transgress’. They forget that God is Love, and make all sorts of claims to ‘knowing’ what God wants or thinks eg, ‘God hates homosexuals’, which subsequently sees them descend into morasses of twisted, hate-ridden thinking and even violence. Such people are as far from truly being ‘one with God’ as a worm is from the sky. The Infinite may see some of our actions (most especially those that hurt ourselves or other people) as less than perfect, but It created each of us exactly as we are, and loves us just as we are. Without condition. God created me aspie, female, gay, creative, Kiwi, spiritual, and just a little bit geeky. I’m content with that, it’s a pity so many don’t accept what the Divine Power intended me/us to be.

Some people may decide, after having read the above, that I am ‘anti-religion’, or anti ‘their’ religion. Let me make myself clear. The only things I am ‘anti’ are hatred, bigotry, prejudice, persecution, abuse, oppression, violence and deliberate stupidity. (By which I don’t mean the intellectually disabled, but the attitudes of those who have a fully functional brain and don’t use it, preferring instead to spout reactionary prejudices, regurgitated dogma, or the latest ‘party line’.)

There’s much more I could say, but I think this post is long enough!! Perhaps I’ll say more another day.

How Not to Respond to Criticism

Recently I was foolish enough to get embroiled in a Facebook discussion about some aspects of religion (this has happened to me before, you’d think I’d know better by now). I dared to suggest that someone’s beloved faith has a less than perfect history, and got duly dumped on as a result. I’m still reeling somewhat from that, and still annoyed at the idiocy of some of their arguments (eg that it’s atheists who exclusively start wars). However, it’s not that they disagreed with me that still bugs me, but the way they did so.

So call me an aspie perfectionist, but in my book, the mature response if something or someone you love is criticized, is to stop, reflect, and investigate if there is any truth to it. And if there is, to do what you can to correct this, if possible. This applies whether you’re talking about a beloved partner who has done something wrong, or a religious body that proves to have a less than perfect history. It is I believe the responsibility and the right of the members of that body to do their utmost to correct these past (and present) sins, and/or see to it that their leadership atones appropriately for them. (Those outside it can of course point out its faults, and resist any social/political changes those bodies are trying to achieve, but the actual job of correction falls to those inside.) Doing so does not mean having to leave their religion – they might still see much of worth in it, and prefer to correct rather than reject.

That’s what I consider a ‘mature’ response. Here’s how not to respond to criticism (most of these were used on me) –

1) “You must be ‘anti-us’” - therefore anything the critic says can be dismissed, because nothing they say could possibly have any validity whatsoever.

2) “You’re a [fill in any type of personal invective]” – insult their intelligence, their intellectual rigour (“You must get your factoids off the Net”), their moral integrity, their personal worth (“Where did you find such ‘friends’, X?”), etc, etc. This, along with 1), is the modern version of “if you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger”.

3) “It didn’t happen.” A point-blank denial of the events or phenomena the critic points out, regardless of the evidence.

4) “It happened, but it wasn’t us who did it.” Again, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. A variation on this is “It was a rogue element within our body that did it.” No responsibility taken, in other words.

5) “It didn’t happen to many.” The ‘minimisation of numbers’ game is an excellent distraction, which effectively bogs down the critic in trying to ‘prove’ their statistics, and totally misses the main point – ie that it happened at all.

6) “It wasn’t that bad.” A similar minimization and distracting tactic, this time re the effects. “It was a long time ago” is a variation on this.

These tactics and attitudes do neither the religious body or the individuals concerned any favours whatsoever. It means a kind of corrosion of the soul sets in for both. Harmful attitudes can continue to be perpetuated, and new and perhaps different wrongs committed. Something begins to stink in the state of Denmark, to paraphrase the Bard. Such denials and suppression of truths are among the many factors that drive people away from the churches in droves, and diminish any respect they might still have in the eyes of the population in general.

Facing truths, on the other hand, however hard, and dealing with past (and present) wrongs within a body or institution (whether religious or not) has the same effect on the issues as fresh air and cleanliness do on physical wounds – ie to promote healing, and strengthen the body involved.

I can understand the initial knee-jerk reaction of denial or anger – no-one is perfect, and it’s natural to want to think the institutions we love “would never do such awful things!” - but I feel it’s up to those who have been challenged, after that initial reaction, to look at these issues honestly, and most especially not to respond with furious insults, rigid dogma, and manipulative tactics. Obviously in this instance, they failed to do so.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Mysticism and Me

Ages ago I said I would write more sometime on my spiritual views. I’ve not done so, because a) there’s been so much else to write about, and b) I’d hate, as I’ve said before, for anyone to feel I’m ‘pushing’ my views on them. However, lately some events have propelled me into doing so.

The first of these was finding a book in my local library on mysticism. It looked interesting, so I took it home, but I wasn’t prepared to find that my concept of ‘mysticism’ was awry. I had a vague concept of ‘mystics’ as the sort of people who deliberately made their body of ‘spiritual’ knowledge obscure or secret, so as to seem more mysterious and powerful than in fact they were. To me, therefore, ‘mysticism’ was the practise of a lot of mumbo-jumbo, self-serving bull.

In fact, I found, mystics are those who seek to approach God/The Divine Power directly, rather than through intermediaries such as churches, priests, ministers, imams, rabbis, etc. Their methods of doing this have varied – meditation, prayer, sacred dances or trances, certain drugs – but the central theme is clear. There have been mystics since the days of the prehistoric shamans, and they still exist today. Some people simply prefer to have not a conception of God (ie an idea), but a perception – ie a direct experience.

Sometimes they were, at least nominally, members of one religion or another – there have been Christian, Jewish and Islamic mystics – but this didn’t mean they were exempt from the persecution and hostility heaped on mystics over the millennia, as they of course threatened the power of those intermediaries over their ‘flocks’.
I am a mystic too, I realized. Through meditation, prayer, and trying consciously to live my life according to my spiritual principles, I have sought to establish, maintain and strengthen a direct relationship with the Divine. I neither need nor want a church, minister, whoever, telling me what to do, or ‘what God wants’, or how I should live. I outgrew formal religion about the same time as I became a fully-functioning adult, but have never seriously considered not having a connection to the Infinite. I am a spiritual being, it is who and what I am.

And as a spiritually-minded aspie, mysticism suits me – I always like to ‘go to the source’, to go deeper into things, to not just accept ‘Received Truths’, but to find out for myself. I doubt I will go round telling people I’m a ‘mystic’ – although I have included it on my Facebook page in the space for ‘religion’ – but it’s nice to know I’m part of a long, long tradition of like-minded people.

I hope to say more about my spiritual views in further posts.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Autistics And Mentors

The feeling is growing stronger in me, that the one thing adults and adolescents (and probably even children) on the spectrum need more than anything else is mentors.

By ‘mentors’, I mean people who can help us find our way through the often bewildering, frightening and overwhelming maze that gets called ‘life’ or ‘the world’. Such people could be either understanding (and knowledgeable) NTs, or older people on the spectrum who have also acquired knowledge and/or solid skills and want to pass them on. The role could be a formal or informal one, paid or volunteer, under the auspices of some organisation or (possible, but less likely) government department, or simply personal or family connections.

A mentor could help us auties in lots of ways, but here are the main ways I feel they could be of use to us (I’m still developing these ideas, so don’t take this as the definitive list) :-

1) Acting as an advocate or (peer) support when we have to deal with government departments, banks, doctors, landlords, prospective employers, universities, etc, etc. Some autistics have people doing this role for them already.

2) A sort of ‘go-to’ person to ask all those thorny ‘social savvy’ questions of – “Why did she say that?” “Why was what I did wrong?” “How do I ask them out on a date?”

3) A similar sort of person to ask practical questions like - “How do I go about doing such-and-such?” “Who do I see about this?” “What does this letter mean?”

3) A sort of ‘co-ordinator’ or ‘liaison’ person so that, even if they are not able to help us directly, they can point us in the direction of those people and agencies who can.

4) Someone who can either direct us to online or face-to-face groups for those on the spectrum, or co-ordinate such groups, or provide/arrange a place for them to meet. Note: if such people are not on the spectrum themselves, I would expect them to act as the initiator only of such groups, and not to actually join in the meeting, or try to ‘manage’ it, or us, in any way.

The main thing about such mentors is that they help us in a positive way. My definition of ‘positive help’ is assistance that empowers the individual. By this, I mean it helps us feel stronger in our selves, increases our independence, self-confidence and self-esteem, grants us more control over our lives, and leaves us feeling good about the relationship with the mentor. ‘Negative help’, on the other hand, is ‘help’ that leaves us feeling weak, more dependent and ‘needy’, feeling bad about ourselves, and ambivalent towards the person supposedly ‘helping’ us.

Many a time in my life, I’ve wished for such support, even looked for it, asked people for help, but either they weren’t willing to, or didn’t understand exactly what I needed, or in what form I needed it. Sometimes I was even criticised simply for asking. It has meant a lifetime floundering around trying to find my way, making heaps of mistakes that, if they could have been avoided, would have made my life so much easier. I would probably not be in the position (of poverty, joblessness, poor health, etc), that I’m in, if I had had such help. I’ve learnt a lot of skills along the way, sure, but I did it the hard way – the extremely hard way. I would love it if both present and future generations of autistics didn’t have to struggle and stumble through life as I did.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Autistics and Trust Issues

A lot of aspies, including me, have big, big issues with trust. We generally start out in life very na├»ve, wide-open and totally trusting, taking people and situations at face value, and willing to believe whatever people say. Lying and deceit don’t come naturally to us, and it never occurs to us that others might do it. In consequence, we have often been used, abused, tricked, deceived, maltreated and betrayed, over and over again. At some point, we realize this blind trust of ours is misplaced, and become extremely wary. Many of us come to view people in general and NTs in particular with a great deal of suspicion, resentment and anger. We can even become so hyper-sensitive that we jump to conclusions and see slights, rejections and betrayals that aren’t in fact there.

The ‘pop psychology’ on such betrayals is that we should ‘forgive and forget’, move on and let it go – after all, it’s in the past, right? But for us, it’s not ‘in the past’. It’s ongoing. Our memories stay uncomfortably vivid. We find it hard to ‘just forget’ things, and don’t do forgiveness well. Moreover, we have extreme difficulty in letting go past betrayals because we usually just can’t process them, can’t understand why they happened, whose ‘fault’ it was, or even, often, what happened, exactly. Reeling, confused, we only know we’ve been kicked in the guts, and it really, really hurts.

And even if we can somehow let go of past incidents, that’s not the end of it. Some of us are still enmeshed in ‘betrayal of trust’ circumstances. But even if we aren’t, every day, we must go out into the world and face again situations we can’t judge accurately, people we can’t read properly if at all, and thus, we know, the potential is always there for more betrayals, more abuse, more dumping of other people’s crap on our heads. We can come to trust pretty much no-one, because we are so bad at figuring out who can and can’t be trusted. The whole thing becomes a bewildering morass, and it never really ends. Each day, consequently, can be a nightmare of trepidation. And the more we have to do with the world, the more likelihood there is that these betrayals will happen, simply because of what and who we are.

Some aspies I’ve encountered claim they’ve always been suspicious, and mistrusting of others. I think it’s possible their betrayals happened so early, they’ve forgotten the times before. Others, like me, remember all too well their earlier naivety, and the pain of the repeated betrayals and loss of trust.

Either way, there really isn’t any ideal solution, for me or for autistics in general. The world is what it is, and we are what we are. No amount of ‘social skills training’, no amount of struggling to learn how to ‘read’ other people, is going to alter the fact that just about all of us will get taken advantage of sooner or later.

Each and every autistic individual has to make their own choice, as to how much and in what way they interact with the world/other people. If we become total recluses, we may be safe (in some ways), but this can mean we become very lonely, and cut off from those who do or might love us, and who could be trusted. On the other hand, being totally ‘open’ to the world means being a target for bullies, abusers, scammers and all manner of undesirables. We all need to find our own midpoint, between total reclusiveness and total openness. That midpoint will be different for every aspie/autie, and no-one has the right to judge another’s decision on this.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Aspie Reactions to Criticism

Most aspies seem to really, really struggle with personal criticism. I’ve seen it mooted that this is because of our lack of Theory of Mind. I feel it’s more complex than that, and so I want to list here some possible reasons for why we react so badly to criticism.

1) Being Emotionally Hyper-Sensitive. It’s true that many of us, despite our lack of awareness of the non-verbal stuff, are actually acutely, and almost psychically, sensitive to emotional ‘vibes’ – and if hostility is coming our way, we can feel overwhelmed, bludgeoned, and extremely stressed by it.

2) Not Being Able To Predict It. Because we are so poor at that non-verbal stuff, and often ignorant of the more complex social nuances, we’re not able to see frustration or anger building up in others. So criticism seems to just ‘come out of nowhere’, throwing us off balance and uncertain of how to react to it. The overwhelming feeling is “what the hell did I do?” We can then spend hours, days or even years going over past interactions, analysing every word we said or didn’t say, every last little action – and still not get to the heart of it. This process can be extremely stressful, damaging to our self-esteem, and in the long run lead to withdrawal from further interaction with others, because we just don’t know when and where criticism is going to come from. The more indirect people are in their criticisms, and the more they prevaricate about speaking to us about what’s on their minds, the worse this problem is.

3) Not Knowing If The Criticism Is Valid. Because we’re such poor judges of others, we often don’t know how to evaluate their criticisms. Is the person is just having a bad day and lashing out? Are they just a nasty person in general? Is it simply a misunderstanding on their part of something you’ve said or done? Is it a lack of understanding of what having Aspergers means? Or has there been some real error on our part? How seriously should we take these criticisms? We just don’t know. Once again, the more indirect and vague the criticisms are, the worse this problem gets, and the more stress we experience (and the lower our self-esteem plummets), and usually there is no resolution for either side.

4) We Don’t Know How To Put It Right. If we’re not totally sure of the above, there’s no way we can know how to react. Should we just apologise, even if we aren’t sure what the problem really is, or don’t feel we did anything wrong? Should we try and explain ourselves? Stick up for ourselves? And if so, how? On the other hand, if there is something about ourselves that needs changing (eg the way we approach others), what do we change it to? And how? How can we be any different than what we are? We often just don’t know HOW to change, without specific guidance from others, that is usually not forthcoming. We’re expected to ‘just know’, and our lack of the correct behaviour presumed to be sheer arrogance or bloody-mindedness on our part. The hostility levels ramp up, and our distress increases with it.

There’s no easy way out of these situations. For myself, I finally came to realise the only way I can handle criticism is to –
a) make it plain that I don’t understand, and keep asking questions until I do (or people’s patience runs out!). It goes against the grain in some ways, to do this, and I know I risk being thought stupid, weird, rude, stubborn, rigid, crazy, or whatever, but I don’t care anymore, or at least not enough to stop. It’s necessary in order to preserve my own sanity.
b) at some point, when I’ve processed things as much as I can, and I start going round in mental circles, I have to ‘draw a line’ under it all, let go of it, and move on. It’s not easy, but I’ve accepted that many people will never understand (or even want to understand in many cases) where I’m ‘coming from’, may not like, tolerate or want to know me. So be it. I prefer to get along with people whenever possible, but you can’t win them all. Many times, I just have to accept less-than-perfect resolutions to any difficulties with others. It stinks, but it’s the way the world works. NTs don’t necessarily all get along perfectly, or handle criticism well either.

I’d be interested to know how other aspies/auties handle criticism, and what does - or doesn’t - work for them.