I begin this year in earnest with some reflections on my own experience of life. For quite some time, I have sought a philosophical way of discussing the autism spectrum or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome. Most of what is written on the subject is scientific and clinical, written by distinguished men like the Canadian psychiatrist Dr Laurent Mottron and the Australian psychologist Tony Attwood. I have until now failed to find a way to proceed with this subject, at least until I came across the notion of liminality.
This word, like any other, is quite ambiguous in its meaning. It can describe a transitional state between one norm and another, but also a situation of being at the limit or edge or what most people experience as life. It can also describe the agonising situation of being divided between two incompatible or mutually-exclusive positions. Someone who is on the autism spectrum, and I am thinking particularly of those who are not intellectually impaired, will also experience profound alienation from a life that most take for granted.
I have debated with myself to what extent I would expose myself on a blog that is accessible to all, and I still feel I have to be discreet about some things currently going on in my life. However, I was aware of the instability that some remarked along my journey. What was this instability? I interpret it most as being unable to relate to the social games many play, and I have experienced this both in the Church and in marriage. By 2016, I became so concerned with this alienation that I sought a psychological / psychiatric explanation. I cast my mind back to childhood and school, my family, to seek an explanation. Eventually, I found sites and online tests concerning autism and Aspergers syndrome. Discovering a positive diagnosis (provisional) by quite a large margin, I consulted a psychiatrist and asked him to refer me to the right people for a proper diagnosis. That diagnosis was positive. It gave me a certain explanation, but at the cost of becoming a subject of clinical interest, condescension and gaslighting. This is why it is not a good idea to use a label for self-identification or self-justification. It is merely a piece of information, an explanation in conventional and (pseudo) scientific terms.
In the light of this experience, I saw the term liminality in the same light. Who would go into a pub and say “Hey, mates, I’m liminal“? They might say that I have had a few too many or that I should go home and get some rest. Childhood memories are revived with feelings about in-between places, fear, doubt and confusion. Liminality is a state where we wait for knowing how we will emerge on the other side of the frontier. However, finding closure and certainty is largely an illusion in this twilight world. My present matrimonial situation (having announced my intention to divorce and waiting for the first hearing at the divorce court), leaves me in a state of suspended reality, in which no plans can be made for the future. Uncertainty is a part of life that we have to accept. This is union with God through the apophatic way, the cloud of unknowing. “Aspies” are used to being alienated from the things of this world – terrena despicere et amare coelestia. Clarity will come in one form or another. We have no children, and our personalities are utterly incompatible.
Being uncertain made me seek some kind of light from a scientific perspective to clarify the rational side. There are more unknowns in the universe than there are knowns. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy (Hamlet, I.5).
Returning to the concept of stability, everything in life is change. This idea is reminiscent of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who in many ways inspired German Idealism and Hegelian dialectics. I identify more with such ideas than the static stability of Parmenides and his influence of Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy. This change is felt through anxiety and Sturm und Drang. We navigate in troubled waters, and there is only one to admonish us O men of little faith! Then Jesus rose in the boat and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.
It is in this in-between and seeking some kind of “normal” that we have to come to terms with ourselves, to accept ourselves. I read an article about positive disintegration in the ideas of the Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980) who was influenced by C.J. Jung. The theory is quite difficult to understand, but essentially, the growth of the person comes through suffering and the renunciation of the super-ego or the false self. Liminality can bring us to a closer realism about ourselves, and there are many quotes from the Gospel that illustrate this. For example: Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit (John xii.24). This notion of death to the world, resumed by St Paul, is not actual death but the shedding of the false person to make a transition into a state of salvation. This is an analogical notion of death, as when a monk makes his vows. Dąbrowski draws up a theory of individuation describing how a small number of individual persons will go through disintegration and reintegration leading to the flowering of an autonomous personality. This happened to many of the mystics who are saints of the Church, but also to others who have to accept being torn apart so that they can reconstruct as a new person. But, the theory is much more complex and clinical.
We don’t have the right to give up the search for what is deepest and most authentic in us, the spark of divinity in our souls, our spirits. I certainly don’t think that any religion other than Christianity has understood this strength in our weakness.
One thing I have noticed about my current experience is how everything just slows down. I often forget words and search for them, sometimes finding them on Google via synonyms or just waiting until they return to my consciousness. I find it more difficult to read, and my writing is much less frequent. My priestly vocation causes me pain, not that I want to leave it, but that it is a constant reproach to my unworthiness without indulging the guilt ego-trip too much. Even playing the organ is an act of will, and the boats are laid up for the winter. I am waiting for my strength to return with a new life. I think that it is important not to force myself but to be patient in these most nerve-wracking moments of the transition from marriage back to celibacy and authenticity. Much of this is burnout, which would regenerate with a new set of circumstances.
Autism is not a thing that can be treated or cured with a few pills and an electric shock like in the comics featuring psychiatrists who tell their patients – Just relax and I’ll make you normal! It is an answer, or the beginning of an answer, that absolves us from an impossible search into ourselves which leads to depression and the feeling of being a “failed human being”. The important thing is not going into the desert and fasting for forty days and forty nights, feats of heroism we would not be able to observe, but baby steps in the recovery of our spirit and interests in reading, music or whatever.
I would like to contribute towards a philosophical view of this aspect of humanity, though found only in a small percentage of individuals. I am not a scientist or a mental health professional. They have their job to do. I have mine as a priest with a badly injured vocation, and as a person with an interest in helping other persons who have been through a similar experience.