“How can there be any SIN in SINCERE?” asks the quartet in “The Music Man.” We’ll let that question be our thought for the week, because it contains a crucial point in our Mission.
(Please keep in mind: These thoughts are written by a person with autism. For people with autism. And people without.)
The Mission of Saint Thorlak absolutely, positively depends on sincerity.
The Online Etymology Dictionary explains “sincere” speaks of things “whole, clean, pure, unmixed… that which is not falsified.”
It is so very important that all of our work as Missionaries of St. Thorlak be done in complete sincerity.
People with autism lack the ability to pick up on social cues that are not explicit. Oftentimes, we even miss the ones that ARE explicit. It causes so much trouble. It’s not as bad in the younger years because we have adults to guide and explain and untie our social knots for us, but as we hit adolescence and young adulthood, we are expected to navigate ourselves through the already confusing social scene. Anyone will tell you that adolescence without autism is at best turbulent and constantly changing. Best friends can morph into “frenemies” without warning, drama runs high, feelings get hurt and relationships are unstable. Autism deprives us of the ability to internalize the rules and trust that, at the end of the day, we did enough to be remembered and appreciated for who we are. Half the time, we don’t know who we are ourselves. We rely on the reactions of others to know who we are to them, and if our approval rating fluctuates wildly, or we commit too may blunders, or are constantly bypassed... we conclude we aren't worth it. Worse, if we are mocked or rebuffed, we believe we are detestable. Even if somewhere, our logical minds tell us that’s extreme, it doesn’t matter: we believe it.
People with autism put a lot of stock into rules. We count on them to know what to do. We expect them to be consistent. We over-emphasize following them, to utmost perfection, to be able to rest inside. The roller coaster changing rules of adolescent relationships is an impossible sea to sail.
Some of us deal with this by rejecting rules altogether, rebelling against the norm, and standing out in loud, angry contrast: Loners, freaks, emos. Full of rage, and lonely to the core.
Some chameleon our way into the scene and fake it ‘till we make it, but feel like hollow shells.
Some withdraw into a quiet corner and accept the loneliness as the cost of not having to deal with rules that keep changing.
All three scenarios are very common. All three are symptomatic of spiritual starvation. And, all three are deficiencies of sincerity. The first finds us pushing people away on purpose with the untruth, “I don’t NEED anyone to like me!” The second requires us to dismiss honesty in favor of enough white lies to work our way into the social scene – but we know down deep we aren’t being true to ourselves and are cheating our friends by misleading them. The third is more like a spiritual anorexia – a willing starvation, offset by the temporary relief of avoiding the ambiguity altogether. This lie is one we tell ourselves, that it's just not worth it... that we're just not worth it.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak must pledge to SINCERELY work to combat spiritual starvation.
That is: In a manner that is whole, clean, pure, unmixed… that which is not falsified.
If you reach out in friendship to another person, you must do so in a manner that is whole, clean, pure, unmixed and not falsified.
If you are approached by a person in friendship, you must respond in a manner that is whole, clean, pure, unmixed and not falsified.
This is an absolute deal breaker.
If you reach out to another person with any trace of pretense or uncertainty, you do more harm than good. You offer them cardboard - or worse, poison - in the guise of nourishment. Your pretense will eventually become evident and reinforce all the untrue things that person has already begun to believe (such as, “Being social means being twofaced, threefaced or fiftyfaced” and “People don’t like me when they REALLY know me” and “I’m not worth knowing”).
Please note that UNCERTAINTY is included with pretense. Don’t do anything until you are ready to be completely authentic. It is much better to wait than to jump in before you are ready. We understand. We can wait. We are confident you will be ready before too long.
Thus, our takeaway:
PEOPLE WITH AUTISM: Your spirit needs to be sincerely accepted by others in order to receive nourishment.
PEOPLE WITHOUT AUTISM: Your spirit needs to be sincerely accepted by others in order to receive nourishment.
Go with the one that applies to you.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak
So far, we have discovered a superweapon in our choice to ask the OTHER person to be OUR friend, and we have thought about our human need to be recognized and valued. Now it's time to think about how these two ideas meet to form our mission.
We are here to UNDERSTAND, RECOGNIZE, ADDRESS AND PREVENT spiritual starvation.
Spiritual starvation. If physical starvation means "suffering or death caused by hunger" (Merriam-Webster), then spiritual starvation means suffering or death caused by... what, exactly?
Let's see how physical hunger is different from spiritual hunger.
-Physical hunger is usually obvious, with physical symptoms... whereas spiritual hunger is not always noticeable, even by people who are spiritually hungry.
-Physical hunger can be relieved in the absence of others, so long as a person obtains food. Spiritual hunger cannot. Even if you make the argument that a person can feed their spiritual needs by faith in God, that right there points to the necessity of another - a Divine Other, if you will. The hungry soul cannot relieve its need alone.
-Physical hunger can be relieved with any kind of food. Feeding spiritual hunger requires personalized thought and attention. We all have the same basic need to be known and loved, but that can never be mass produced and distributed like bags of grain. Some starving souls might hunger for someone to listen to them. Others might need to BE the listeners to people who will take on the burden of doing the talking. Others might be very intimidated by touch or eye contact, so they need a special formula to show you consistently remember them, value them and are genuinely pleased they exist -- without overpowering them with friendliness or giving up when they don't respond enthusiastically. Spiritual nutrition is as individual as every person, whether one has an autism diagnosis or not.
-You can mask physical hunger only so long before your body becomes too weak to keep up the façade. Spiritually hungry people can hide their need for years without being detected, yet continue deteriorating. Truly, how can we readily spot things like loneliness, distrust, self-loathing, shyness, sadness, longing, smoldering resentment, or loss of hope?
Bottom line: Prolonged hunger cannot go on for long periods of time without great harm – physical, or spiritual.
By now, it is obvious why The Mission of Saint Thorlak cannot operate like the missions to feed the physically hungry.
A soup kitchen approach is excellent for nourishing people with good food. But we cannot think that starving souls can be fed by standing in lines to step up and receive affirmation, even if it is given lovingly and sincerely.
We cannot hold "friendship collection drives" at weekend church services. We can't hit up our friends to donate a can or two from their pantries and feel satisfied that we have filled a grocery bag for the food pantry.
Monetary donations won't do much for us, either.
Folks: we need CONTEMPLATION: Contemplative PRAYER and contemplative ACTION.
The only effective way to feed spiritually hungry people is to give them what they need from OUR OWN spiritual inventory.
This is why it is so crucial for Missionaries of Saint Thorlak to be aware of their own needs: so that they can have a rich spiritual reservoir available for those they encounter.
Stumbling block: What if we don't have excess in our reservoirs? What if we barely have enough ourselves? What if we have no idea what we're doing? How will we get what hungry souls need, never mind have enough to share?
(Too bad... only two or three people in the world have that kind of spiritual life, and I'm certainly not one of them...)
Ah! But wait! Don't you see? THE PEOPLE WE APPROACH have it! For us!
(Say that again?)
Quick! Stay with us! Look! That person right over there, that spiritually hungry person. The one who may or may not have autism – right now, that’s not important. That person is human, right?
And, so are you?
Great! We've got all we need!
Because, as you engage them to see what they need, they fill YOUR store.
Not only that alone, but if you do it with faith, with a quick prayer to Our Lord Jesus, to see Him in that person and to let that person see Him in you... it's in the bag! Because, when two or more are gathered in Jesus' Name, He becomes present... and He fills everyone's cups to the top, and flowing over. *
Now you've got plenty... for you, for them, and even leftovers for tomorrow's lunch.
Good job! You just stitched together the first two Missionary Thoughts. Chew on them this week, and then see what we're serving up next.
SUBSCRIBE to our Missionary Thought of the Week using the form on this page, or FOLLOW us on Facebook and Twitter. Spread the good news and keep those recruits pouring in!
*this is another of St. Thorlak’s secret superweapons… reminding others that Jesus is present wherever two or more are gathered in His name. Read about it in the Saga of Bishop Thorlak, page 7.
As we get started on our Mission, it might seem like we should toggle back and forth between the camps to which these messages are aimed. Are they for people with autism, or those who want to help them?
You’ll see, as you journey with us, that there is really no distinction necessary. All we need is for you to ponder these thoughts as yourself. If you have social anxiety or difficulty speaking, you’ll read it with meaning for you. If you really don’t care for the company of others, you’ll read it with meaning for you. If you want to do more for people who are on the margins of your circle, you’ll read it with meaning for you. If you’re distrustful of other people, or completely confused by friendships, or desperately lonely, or such a secure extrovert that you can barely take time to read this between text messages, you’ll read it with meaning for you. In other words, it’s useful for everyone. The only category we need you to fit into is “humanity.”
Did you know the origin of that word HUMANITY stems from its earliest usage in the 14th century to mean “consideration for others”? (see www.etymonline.com, one of our favorite websites). It also referred to “the quality of being human.” It wasn’t until the 15th century that it became more closely associated with “the collective human race.”
The first objective in the Mission of Saint Thorlak is “to make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.”
No matter who you are, or what your disability is, or what your talents are, you are human. You are part of humanity. You are created as an individual thread in the fabric of all other people. Your personality and neurological makeup might make it easier or harder for you to feel at ease around others. At the end of the day, though, you still have the same need with which every human is born: to be known, and to be loved.
Let’s use our etymology site to pick apart three more words we’ve been using.
Consideration (as in, humanity means consideration for others) might imply: Looking at… contemplation… reflection… or, taking into account.
(Somehow we have a sense, too, that this word implies “kindness,” although that would be a conclusion drawn from HOW we look at, contemplate, reflect or take others into account, wouldn’t it?)
Known might imply: Recognized… familiar… not strange. (We’re skipping over “famous” for now.)
Loved might imply: Referring to friends and relations. (We’re not taking on the task of defining “love” at this time, but don’t count that out for future thoughts!)
Okay, then. We’ll underline the words from the first objective that we just picked apart.
The first objective in the Mission of Saint Thorlak is to make people aware of their humanity: their human need to be known and loved.
This week’s thought: What does this mean to YOU?
You’re on this page because something about the Mission of Saint Thorlak interested you.
What brought you to this page?
Are you human?
Then, the first objective in the Mission of Saint Thorlak is “to make YOU aware of YOUR humanity: YOUR human need to be known and loved.”
Linger there a bit and look for where the truth is in that, for you.
Go back to the words we picked apart and think of which meanings apply to you.
If nothing else, we’re going to guess that you haven’t thought a lot about your humanity yet this week.
Are we right?
Mission accomplished. Or, better still: Just begun.
* CHECK BACK EACH WEEK FOR A NEW MISSIONARY THOUGHT! *
The Mission of Saint Thorlak takes a little getting used to. It looks on the surface like an outreach to people with autism – and, why wouldn’t it? People who struggle with social anxiety and sensory overload reasonably have a harder time making friends than most of us, so, shouldn’t we try and help by making it easier for them?
There is nothing wrong with that, and it is an admirable outreach. If that’s your inclination, we applaud you, and ask that you stick around. We need you.
Of course, there are subtleties that have to be taken into consideration, such as how deeply you want to go in being friends with those people with autism. Are you looking to be their “buddy,” or their “helper,” or truly get to know their hearts and minds? Are you willing to persevere when they need to pull back or decline invitations because they need time to process or build up the stamina to socialize? Are you prepared for the occasional overload, when you might be a little nervous about their behavior? Are you aiming for someone high functioning, or are you willing to wait out those who truly struggle to speak?
Forget all those questions. They aren’t important, right now.
This is the question we're concerned with, and one you can't answer.
Is that person with autism ready to have YOU as THEIR friend?
Friendship's Secret Superweapon is in this deliberate choice of words: "Can you be my friend?"
The weapon works when asked sincerely, from the heart, not the mind; from our need, not our obligation.
Contrast these points of view:
Can you be my friend? = I have a need in my heart for you to befriend me. I want this enough that I am willing to go for broke, I'm willing to expose my neck and be little. I value you that much. You hold the friendship card. Would you share it with me?
May I be your friend? = I am holding a friendship card here. Would you like it? You meet my approval, you seem to be someone I'd like to know more. I sure hope you say yes.
Both situations involve a hope and a need. But let's look closer:
"My friend" is someone who cares for my heart and helps me work toward being a better person; "Your friend" is someone who cares for your heart and helps you work toward being a better person.
By asking "Can you be my friend?," you imply that you are hoping that person will care for YOUR heart and help YOU work toward being a better person. You aren't simply volunteering to do that for someone else (... even if you do end up doing that, which you should if you do become friends, since the goal is mutual, not single-sided!)
Honestly, how often do you ask for someone to care for your heart? Probably not very often. It's foreign to us to ask someone ELSE for THEIR friendship. Even in sending "friend" requests on social media, there is usually a part of us that wants to be their friend as much as we hope they want to be ours.
It is true that people with autism often miss subtlety, but switching the camera orientation like this really makes it hard to miss the message you are sending. That message is: "You are a person of value. Not only do I notice you, but I appreciate you enough to wish for your friendship."
And there is where your original motivation and questions can come back into the picture. If you are looking to reach out to someone with autism because you want them to feel more included, BINGO. It's just that now, they feel included because of who THEY are, not because of who YOU are. All those other things, about autism overload and social reciprocity, all that will fall into place. We'll get to it. But now, the most important aspect is ready to go.
(It's okay... you'll find out a lot more about yourself as your friendship grows... and you'll quickly see, this is no ploy, this is the real deal. You really ARE benefiting more from them than you thought they would from you!)
Let us know how it works. Holy Thorlak, Pray For Us!
* CHECK BACK EACH WEEK FOR A NEW MISSIONARY THOUGHT! *
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak