Now there is a loaded question, and one asked in many senses. Why are we “here” – right here, right now, in these circumstances? Why are “we” here – why us? And why does God wire some people to have autism? Is it preplanned? Is it a deliberate system hack embedding a hidden superpower? Is it a functional design flaw? Is it a variation? Or is it out of God’s hands, the result of some consequence of the imperfections we must accept living in a fallen world?
“God does not make mistakes!” is often heard where such questions arise. We could rightly spend pages and pages looking at the theology of variation, of suffering and healing; and just as rightly strive to characterize autism as a state of being that includes both strength and weakness. Autism does not predict happiness or success any more than eye color or shoe size, nor does it suggest propensity toward or immunity from the suffering that comes with the human condition. Life is hard. Life with autism is hard. But so is life with size ten shoes. Perhaps it is good to look at why God created any of us, and then consider how our individual variations fulfill that purpose.
Why did God create animals, including people? To know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy forever with Him in the next.
What does all that mean? Why does that leave a lot of people feeling dissatisfied, unsettled, even angry?
Let’s be real. If we read it with 21st century eyes, we are likely to think God is a narcissist who created us to admire Him and do His bidding. And then, as we pull that thought out further, we consider all the things we are asked to do in the name of God and religion – like pray, go to Mass, and deny ourselves pleasures because God says they are sinful – and many of us want out before we even get started. Add in the hard stuff, and it really starts to look like God has a cruel streak!
The answer to these, and all other such concerns, can be found by knowing God. Like a list of ingredients, the item named first is done so to emphasize its importance: God made people, first and foremost, to know Him. God fashioned our combination of body and soul so that we might consider who He is and what He is like. No matter what issues or doubts we have, this is where we need to start.
How do we know God? How do we KNOW anyone? There are hundreds of ways, each with their own level of depth and detail. The origin of the word “know” suggests it is an act of comparing and contrasting, matching up similarities and distinguishing between differences. Knowledge can come through observation, pondering, reading, listening, discussing and doing. For those of us on the spectrum, factual knowledge is usually our strength. Knowing someone is a little more complicated: it requires proximity, social engagement and the ability to interpret the experience, whether through direct contact, observation or imagination. It’s hard enough to do that with the people around us. How can we engage with someone who is invisible, intangible and immeasurable?
Well, maybe it’s not THAT difficult. Just last week, in spelling out attributes of the human soul, we said: “Each person has a unique, essential spirit… that is invisible, intangible and immeasurable – but is expressed through all that we feel and all that we do.” Come to think of it, those invisible, intangible and immeasurable elements ARE how we know others!
Realistically, knowing others still relies on our five senses taking in data that is tangible and measurable. By seeing the actions, hearing the words and participating in the actions of others, we come to know their character. It takes significantly more detective work to know someone we cannot see, hear or physically engage with.
We really ought not to go any further in our assumptions or conclusions until we give this knowing a fair shot. It may take us awhile. What many people find helpful is not to look forward, but to look backward, back to a time when we might remember experiencing something that reminded us of God, or something someone said was what God is like. Most of us have some kind of notion of “God” from our early childhood, either from what we are taught or what we pick up from what we’ve seen and heard along the way. Many of us remember something that caused us to stop and feel a tremendous sense of awe, or wonder, or wish, that reached beyond ourselves and our senses into that unseen, unknown realm which we intuitively know is there but we just as intuitively know that nobody can see… yet.
If “knowing” is comparing and contrasting, we might do just as well to think of a time in our past when we felt like hiding, or shrinking away, or suddenly covering up something we love because we have a need to protect that love. Those are the moments autistic people know best when someone else makes a comment or a statement (or worse) that pierces a moment of our most oblivious joy with the sharp pain of their ridicule or misunderstanding.
What is it that gets pierced? What is it misunderstood, or ridiculed? Is it us, our very selves? Or is it that sense of joy, or insulation, or innocence, or immersion in something we love to the point of losing ourselves into it? Most of us would agree it is not us, per se, but the love we feel which is ridiculed.
Maybe we cannot sense God when things are running smoothly and people are treating us well. But when we are hurt, what is it that hurts? What is it that we seek after when we hurt, in our earliest childhood? It is an invisible, intangible, immeasurable something. Maybe we can’t define it, but boy, do we feel the pain when it gets injured. That innocent wonder which is wounded when love is ridiculed – it certainly fits the description we’re going for. Could that be God, or God’s likeness, or God’s echo?
Our closing point before we keep going next week: The progression of “why are we here?” goes from knowing God to loving God. “LOVE” is not something that can be forced, faked or coerced. It follows that we cannot love anyone we do not know. Before we get wrapped up in conclusions, let us stay where we need to be in the progression: let us strive to KNOW God, and trust that the rest will flow from there. If we are facing an obstacle to engaging with our faith, go back to the beginning. Worry about nothing else until we can say, confidently, that we KNOW God. Nothing else will work until that connection is working.