Originally Published in Six Parts, March 2016
An Adult Aspergers Experience of Living in a Distracting World
If you’re like me, the title of this blog post caused a needle to set down on the turntable in your head, and already The Police are singing and playing in your mind. If that’s not the case, you can get a jump start here:
So here’s the thing: the title (and the song) is a set up. Now that you’re expecting the word “magic,” and probably a sweet, love-story tribute to the other half of my brain, I can swoop down in my bemused, ironic superhero costume and pull the rug out from under your expectations. Though Sally has “magic” in great quantities, that’s not what this post is about. What I really want to talk about is how every little thing she does is wrong.
A more honest title might be this: The Unbearable Wrongness of Sally.
Now, when I say wrong, I mean this: wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Logically wrong. Rationally wrong. Wrong,wrong, wrong. The way she does dishes? Wrong. The way she cooks? Wrong. The way she knits? Wrong. The way she makes coffee? Wrong. The way she cleans house? Wrong. The way she leaves lights on? The way she listens to podcasts? The way she talks on the phone? The way she does laundry? The way she paints walls? The way she drives? The way she gets ready for bed? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
Wrong. Wrong like inefficient wrong. Wrong like illogical. Wrong like irrational. Wrong like breaking the rules. Wrong like everybody knows she is wrong. Wrong like I can prove it wrong. Faulty. Inaccurate. Misguided. Mistaken. Askew. Fallacious. Amiss. Erroneous. Inexact. Miscalculated. Untrue. False.
You know… wrong.
How wrong is she? She’s this wrong:
Now, any of you with hackles raised on the nape of your neck, take a moment and breathe. I know many of you love Sally, and may feel like you need to step in at this point and defend her from the tall, smart, white American male.
But to do so would be premature, I think (not to mention futile, since she’s so obviously wrong) and would demonstrate, to my mind, that you do not know the whole of me, and are not deeply grokking what I am saying. That would be completely understandable, of course, since I haven’t really said it yet. And how could you know the whole of me?
But I can’t say everything at once, and I need to take things in smaller chunks, if I am to have any hope of teasing them apart. We have to traverse some peaks and valleys, it seems, if we wish to reach Rumi’s famous field. And this is a rich and surprising landscape. I’m continuing to unravel my Aspie experience. I need to go slowly. And I need to start with the feeling.
So sit tight, wait for it, and trust that, in the end, this will turn out to be a love-story after all, and that the magic will appear in its own due time. For now, you just need to get this: Sally is wrong. As wrong as Howard Johnson is right. To paraphrase the immortal Charles Dickens:
Sally was wrong: to begin with. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
I have long prided myself on my “open mind,” thinking myself both talented and practiced in such matters as “suspending assumptions,” “holding the question,” “surfing uncertainty,” “stepping outside of the culture,” “challenging the dominant paradigm,” “hanging out on the fringe,” “balancing paradox,” and “not collapsing the waveform of possibility into the hard matter of belief.”
I did seminars with Landmark Education, where I learned to make distinct the many stories, reactions, and assumptions that ruled my behavior, and where I trained in the art of living beyond those habits of thought, belief, and action.
I read, studied, re-read, and spoke about the fabulous novels of Daniel Quinn, who skillfully and artfully called to question the fundamental stories, urgings, promptings, and mandates enacted by the dominant global culture. So thoroughly did Quinn’s ideas become my own that I “became the message.” I am B.
I crawled into the rock tumblers of relationship – in two separate intentional communities, in two marriages, and in the raising of children – and slowly allowed my rough surfaces and sharp corners to be smoothed and polished by the grit of mistakes made and the sand of time passing.
I read Scott Peck on “community“, David Bohm on “formal dialogue“, Thomas Lewis on “the limbic brain“, and Daniel Kahneman on “cognitive biases” and “heuristics” and “thinking, fast and slow,” and I worked with Sally to create, facilitate, and participate in a series of “dialogue circles,” which sought to move participants beyond the confines of their own egoic viewpoints, and into a larger, shared group wisdom.
I sought, more and more, to walk the spiritual path of sanity and healing, seeking to relate, with ever growing clarity, to “what’s so as what’s so.”
I was on it. I had it under control. It was handled. I considered my ability to step beyond my assumptions, stories, beliefs, and habits to be one of my greatest assets. My superpower. My work in this world. My path to evolution, fulfillment, growth, learning, and purpose. It was my answer to the question: why am I here?
So imagine my surprise, when I demolished an inner wall I never even knew I had, to find, on the other side, that there’s a thick, hot cable of right-and-wrong judgment, habituated and unconscious need, and black-and-white thinking running directly through the core of my being.
I may have thought I was standing in Rumi’s field, but I still had one foot planted firmly in the land of rightdoing and wrongdoing.
So here’s the question…
Am I the controlling, judgmental, picky, needy, overbearing, and autocratic know-it-all I portrayed in Part 1? Or am I the wise, skilled, talented, polished, self-aware, and open-minded person I portrayed in Part 2?
The answer, of course, is all of the above. I’m both: a wild, swirling smoothie of qualities and characteristics, made from a mixture of inborn proclivities, needs, gifts, and limitations and a lifetime of experiences, reactions, and traumas, all whipped up in the Magic Bullet blenders of family, school, relationship, culture, and paradigm. In Part 1, I selected those parts of me that revealed the “know-it-all,” with the intent of providing a feeling experience of my inner process. In Part 2, I spoke of my other qualities, trusting that those characteristics are more often revealed in my posts. And I could highlight other parts, if I wished: the anxious part; the lost part; the furious part, etc.
But here’s the thing: while it’s easy enough to look at Mr. Smart Guy (the “know-it-all” part of me that judges Sally as “wrong”) and think him “the bad guy,” (especially when Mr. Open-Mind is standing right next to him looking all wise and shit) the fact is that I need both of those parts. As Terry Gilliam explained to John Cleese in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, I’m using them. Trying to somehow rid myself of the “know-it-all” would be like yanking my leg off: I could no longer walk.
A bit ironic, isn’t it? I mean… I’m arguing here that the part of me that walks through the world proclaiming that certain things are “bad” or “wrong” is not only not “bad” or “wrong,” but is, in fact, necessary to my existence. How can such a thing be?
While the answer to that will take a bit of time to unravel, I think I can outline the facets right now:
- The two aspects are opposite edges of the same sword.
- They operate in different territories, seeking different goals.
- Both aspects are understandable, and even lovable, once you understand why they are the way they are.
- It’s a matter of these aspects being in or out of balance.
- There are tweaks, hacks, protocols, and workarounds I can use to keep these aspects aligned.
- I’ve already become quite skilled at using these protocols.
- Mostly because of Sally being who she is.
We’re re-watching Seasons 2 & 3 of House of Cards, in anticipation of the upcoming release of Season 4…
Me: Listen to these guys! First it’s Feng, then it’s Fang, then it’s Fung. Why can’t they all say his name the same?!
Sally: (smiling) Aspie alert!
I live in two territories. Since I am, by trade, a “science fiction author,” I shall give them appropriately “syfy” names.
The Outerlands is the realm of physicality and other. It’s a place of body and sensation and inputs. A place of objects and light and sound and smell and texture. A place of other people, other lives, other needs, other values, other wants, other agendas. It consists of all that is not contained in the core of conscious self-awareness I know as “me.”
The Innerlands is the realm of personal consciousness and self. It’s a place of images and visions and creativity and connection to the great Mind-at-Large. A place of thoughts, musings, fascinations, interests, speculations, sensations, and emotions. A place of personal needs, personal values, personal wants, and personal agendas. A place of “doing what I came here to do.” It consists of my ongoing story of Self, the conscious self-awareness of “me” that maintains a sense of separation from that which it considers outside of itself.
I could stop at this point and try to unravel the many assumptions, delusions, and dangers contained in the paragraphs above. (Perhaps one of you could do that for me?) Though I’ve given them new names, the categories themselves are an old, old story, and there are plenty of other labels they could go by. But all of that would be beside my point, and I’m not the droid you’re looking for in any event, if you wish to get all philosophical and shee-it. My point is to try to convey how it feels.
It feels like I walk these two territories.
And I like the Innerlands way better than the Outerlands.
I want to explain why that is, and what it means for me, but I’m not sure, at this point, that I understand it clearly myself. So I’ll continue on, piece by piece, and see if I can make it clear, all the time keeping in the back of my mind my starting point: the fact that Sally is so utterly wrong about so many things. I need to hang out for a while in the movie theater of life with Donald Shimoda and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I need to sit quietly and remote view my own story.
But in the meantime, here’s what I know right now: The reason it matters to me when House of Cards characters pronounce a name differently is the same reason it matters to me when Sally leaves the overhead light on in the kitchen. Both pieces of sensory input can “knock me out of the story.”
And I really hate being knocked out of my story.
There’s a story in the Memosphere™, largely apocryphal, that tells us that Albert Einstein, that most famous of physicists, had a closet filled with identical clothes, and wore the same thing every day. The reason for this? He did not wish to “waste brainpower” on choosing what to wear each morning.
While there is apparently only a small element of truth to this story, I find the notion beguiling. It points to a sense of personal self-awareness and empowerment that I value and strive for in myself. It reveals a delicious, liberating selfishness, as though Einstein happily took daily doses of Fukitol in order to thrive in a crazy-making world. And it creates space for me, to notice my own needs, step into my own power, and find my own optimum dosage.
I spoke in Part 4 of two territories, the Outerlands and the Innerlands, and said that I prefer the latter to the former. And here’s the primary reason why: I find the Outerlands largely distracting, and major parts of it uninteresting, and I don’t want to waste my “brainpower” choosing how to relate to it.
Back in the “pre-Asperger’s” days, I often spoke of my anxiety in terms of distraction. If I had an appointment or meeting on the calendar, if I had a phone call to make (or knew that one was coming in), if I had a rehearsal to go to or a social event to attend, if there was somebody coming to clean the house, or repair the furnace, or deliver firewood, or share a meal, I would spend the day with feelings of anxiety that rose above my ambient background levels. And I would speak of being distracted.
As we began, Sally and I, to explore the Asperger’s Experience, it became more and more clear to us how strongly I was disturbed by certain aspects of the sensory or “outside” world. Rather than being a “slow-processing-speed computer,” a “blunt instrument” with “only a few crayons in my emotional crayon box,” it began to feel much more correct to think of myself as highly sensitive, extraordinarily sensitized, surpassingly observant, deeply aware, decidedly quick-thinking, and filled to overflowing with feelings, sensations, and emotion. While I might appear to some to be a “blunt instrument” from the outside, much of that came, not from an inherent dullness of being, but from the need to shut down in the face of overwhelm.
The Zombies of the Outerlands come clawing and snarling at my doorway and banging on my windows and I, in order to keep them out, bolt and bar the doors and pull down the steel shutters.
Overhead, bright, or peripheral lights, distant, overlapping, or out-of-place voices, fleeting, unexpected, or irritating textures and touches, disturbing or assaulting odors, strange or suspicious foods, social needs and expectations, faces that do not match words, obvious but unspoken emotional energies, expected and unexpected interruptions, asymmetrical bodies and faces, out of place elements, unnecessary or constant or obvious conversation, evident mistakes and imperfections, unannounced changes and unilateral decisions, affronts to reason and efficiency and logic, unwarranted stories and unfounded pronouncements, all of these and more are the zombies that chase me. “All the world will be your enemy,” Frith told El-Ahrairah. No wonder I shut down.
For most of my life, I didn’t realize that this was how it was for me. I can look back now and remember my distancing, my shutting down, my going away, my acting out, my hidden, smoldering fury. But there was no story of Asperger’s to wrap around it all, no lens through which to view myself that helped me to make sense of it, no compassionate space of allowing into which I might step, like the Prince of Rabbits, and begin to speak the truth of my experience. There was just “normal,” and “one of us,” and a vast ocean of expectations and stories about how people should act and what they should do and want and feel and think and believe and need, and I did my best to live into those expectations, and I hid the parts that did not fit.
The Outerlands is a boundless realm of Distracting Sensations and Expectant Others and I, fearing the zombies, and standing in front of a capacious closet filled with fashionable responses and outside needs and social expectations, waste an inordinate amount of brainpower deciding which “me” to wear when I go out.
Which is why I spend as much time as I can in my nice, comfy, zombie-proof home in the Innerlands.
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense. – Rumi
It feels to me sometimes, as I said in the previous installment, that “all the world is my enemy,” a “boundless realm of Distracting Sensations and Expectant Others,” a land of Outerlands Zombies from whom I must escape to my Innerlands, my fortified shelter. It’s as though the world is an enormous library filled with yacking, running, noisy patrons and I, sitting in my cubicle, bothering no one and trying to focus on my research, must spend my days shushing them.
If I’m neurologically prone to being distracted, to getting “knocked out of the story,” then what is it I’m being distracted from? What is the story I’m in, or wanting to be in, or trying to create, out of which I can get “knocked”?
I’m trying to get to Rumi’s promised field.
In a way, I think I’ve been searching for Rumi’s field for most of my life, just as Dorothy Gale longed for “a place where there isn’t any trouble.” I’ve pushed through the mainstream of thought and knowledge and belief, and sought the distant shores beyond “right” and “wrong” – the edges, the fringe, the “high weirdness” – not simply to assert my right to be who I was, but because I sensed, I believed, that from that vantage point at the edge of the normal curve, I could view and experience the maelstrom of truth and experience and reality from a spot “far above the fray.”
Standing above the fray, I might finally feel safe.
But it wasn’t just the constant low-level assault of sensory inputs I wanted to feel safe from, though those are significant. It was the presence of other human beings that felt the most unsettling. Unlike the crows, dogs, cats, squirrels, cows, deer, chickens, raccoons, sheep, opossums, horses, chickadees, and rabbits I’ve encountered as I’ve walked through this world, human beings come with a confusing set of acquired stories and unquestioned assumptions, with faces that can cover up their thoughts, words that do not match their feelings, and behaviors that do not always follow the rational rules of logic or self-interest or social-reciprocity.
Though I have deficits in the realm of being able to read human beings face-to-face, it also feels true to say that human beings are the animal most practiced in the art of dissembling. But whether that’s true or not, I came here knowing that there was also more to the story. I could sense the vast and beautiful potential of the human animal, and loved them for that, even if I was disappointed by how few of them seemed interested in exploring that realm. I remember, back in my freshman year of college, explaining to the woman who would become my first wife, that, “on the whole, I don’t much like human beings.” Yet when I sat with one of my gurus, back during the making of What a Way to Go, he reduced me to sobs by pointing out that I could not possibly be making such a film without harboring a deep love for my fellow humans.
What pieces of work were human beings, and yet how difficult for me to understand them. I knew from my own experience that I was filled to the brim with feelings and thoughts and complexities and contradictions, and knew that such things shaped my life in every way, and underlied my every word and action. I could reason that at least some of the humans around me must be similar in this regard, and could very often sense the energies that surged within them, even if my interpretation of what those energies represented was hit-or-miss. But I didn’t know how to make them reveal themselves in a way that I could find peace in their presence. It felt like I lived amongst erratic, clumsy robots who seemed unwilling, or unable, to tell me of their programming, such that I could understand why they moved as they did.
I wanted to meet people in Rumi’s field, in a place beyond all the complexities, limitations, and contradictions of language, story, culture, and assumption. I wanted to lie down with them in that soft, tranquil grass and stare up at the clouds and the stars, and speak with them as chickadees or horses might speak, of our felt experiences, our dreams and our fears, our soft, wounded bodies, and of our shared-reality, and in a manner far beyond the usual discourse of judgment and belief, argument, persuasion, and defense, but in the spirit of open dialogue, the telling of the truths, and the collective search for clarity, understanding, and wisdom.
That’s the research I’ve been doing in my cubicle: to try and understand these strange creatures I walk amongst, to find my own way to the sort of self-revelation I seek in others, and to seek to more fully understand the factors that keep individuals, cultures, and entire paradigms from lying peacefully in that soft grass. I’ve questioned everything I could think to question, with much more remaining to do, seeking always to know the “what’s so of what’s so,” trying to understand “what’s really going on.” I’ve sought to meet “that man behind the curtain” and hear his or her story. Perhaps because I hoped that if only I found the right wizard, he or she might take me back home to Kansas.
I needed to lie in that grass, you see, a place so “over the rainbow” that I might find, finally, the peace I knew was possible. It felt like Rumi’s field was the planet I’d come from. Like the signs say on Maine highways, living beyond “right” and “wrong” was “the way life should be.”
So I built my Zombie-proof fortress of routines and filled my closet with identical suits, reducing the distractions as much as was possible while I tasked my intellect with trying to make sense of other human beings, and of why my life amongst them felt so difficult and painful.
And beside me for much of that journey has been Sally, my own personal “confusing person” and “professional distraction.” Because Sally, despite being so often so “wrong,” had been exploring her beautiful human potential far longer than I had. And she knew of pathways to Rumi’s field that I had not taken.