We all know what heckling is. Whether it comes from those two old men in the balcony or the lady behind the counter who disapproves of your style, heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations – such as when someone boldly shouts, “YOU’RE NOT FUNNY!” to the stand-up comic who believes otherwise. Audiences embrace hecklers for the shock value of upstaging those on stage. Performers – not so much.
For the past two weeks, we have talked about childhood in the ideal. For that matter, we often speak of things in their ideal form. As we consider the approach we take into our Mission, it is necessary to keep our eyes and minds on the ideal. Real life may not be there, or even close; but we already live in real life. What good is a Mission unless it aims forward – maybe even, at times, beyond the visible horizon? We may not reach the ideal, but every step in that direction is a better way to live our everyday.
We are born vulnerable and sincere, and then life throws wrenches at us. Our bodies may not cooperate developmentally. Our minds may be ignored, even ridiculed, by social and economic barriers. And, the people around us may not care one bit if we are sincere, vulnerable, curious or joyful.
This sometimes starts at a very young age, but most times, our first encounter with hecklers comes in adolescence. The joy and wonder we have cultivated suddenly becomes our greatest liability. A snarky comment, a snide remark over something we love, or being pushed to the outskirts by those who do not share our interests – all of these are ways that adolescence usurps childhood. Friends can heckle friends, and media messages can heckle entire groups at a time. Comments that are closer to teasing but carry a sting are what we term “heckling,” which are not the same as the focused attacks we know as bullying. Heckling can lead to bullying, yes, but not always. Bullying leaves focused bruises, while heckling wears away at our capacity to trust and callusing our hearts into secrecy.
Whatever age it happens, heckling is the beginning of the end of our
Some of us are very resilient and bounce right along with hecklers, enjoying the give and take and shaking off the sting – maybe not even feeling it. Some of us have no way to tell the difference between heckling and criticism. Many of us find heckling confusing, and we react by putting on a tough face or by changing our outward behavior – denying our true selves, little by little.
Some of us stand up and proclaim our loves no matter what. We can all think of people who do this, typically the self-declared outsiders or the outspoken activists. Two key elements are needed to be those people: Enormous confidence and bold communication skills.
Some of us withdraw into our loves, reticently, pulling the veil over our true selves to avoid the hecklers and thrive as the people we want to be – alone, but true to our selves.
Heckling has the same spiritual effect on people across the board. It files down our confidence and ability to trust both ourselves and others. It then wears away our confidence and ability to trust in God. If others around us throw barbs and mockery our way when we have done nothing but be ourselves… it imprints the message in us that our efforts and our loves are ridiculous. For better or worse, the people around us are the index by which we see how we are received by others. The more people mock us, the more we accumulate a sense of worthlessness. After awhile, it becomes difficult to believe that God could ever find worth in our “ridiculous” ways and loves if ordinary, reasonable people cannot.
Once we collect enough of our hecklers’ frass, even over many years, we gradually become more bitter… angry… and defensive. Why? Because we know that our innocence and loves and ways are not worthless. We are the same person our entire lives, and the child’s-eye view of the confidence we once had is still there, if not buried under responsibility… or suffocating in hecklers’ frass.
How are we to handle hecklers? How can we promote living with child-like wonder and love without exposing hundreds of people to re-experiencing the pain and betrayal of a fresh round of heckling?
Go back to the beginning of this post: Heckling is a confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations. Audience members justify heckling when they feel they are not getting their money’s worth of entertainment. What drives ordinary people to heckle one another in everyday life, where the price of admission is free and there are no scripts to limit expression or variety of opinion?
UNDERSTANDING is one of the pillars of our Mission. Thus, understanding hecklers is key to maintaining caritas without compromising our own integrity.
Hecklers feel cheated. How can we reassure them that there is enough joy for everyone, and that no two people will find exactly as much joy in the same things? How can we promise them that they are okay, even likeable, even if they fail to match our contentment?
By believing this ourselves, first.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta believed it could be shown with a purposeful smile. “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for a smile is the beginning of love. We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” We concur. Giving smiles as reassurance to those who heckle us has a purpose beyond the gesture and can help prevent snark or sarcasm from creeping behind our expression.
It will take practice.
For those of us tempted ourselves to heckle, good counsel is found in St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter three, Revised Standard Catholic Edition.
Whether we are heckling or being heckled, we must not neglect the last line of our excerpt from St. Paul: “Do not look on them [or, ourselves] as enemies, but warn them [or, be warned] as brethren.”
Brethren. Children. Children of God.
On the same human journey, together.
Pray: Dear Father, help me to see with Your eyes – the hecklers in my life, and the times I have been tempted to heckle. Help me to believe that, as Your children, we are all still learning… and still making missteps along with strides forward… and working toward the same goal together.
Contemplate: Ponder our main idea, that heckling is an confrontational vocalization by someone who feels cheated of their expectations.
Relate: Listen carefully this week for heckling in our everyday interactions. Is it part of the landscape? How easily do we notice heckling?
Last week’s Missionary Thought generated a good deal of discussion, which is exactly what we hope for week by week. Thanks to everyone who shared feedback and asked questions. In a sense, our weekly posts are thoughts on human spirituality, “letting people with autism lead the discussion.” It is true that people with autism offer a fresh perspective on interpersonal connection, a distinct manner of looking at the philosophy of relationships, and perhaps draw different conclusions than we are accustomed to hearing.
Revisiting last week, we said that there are limitless ways we could say that God sees us, but the one we pick for our Mission’s focus is God perceiving us as who He imagines us to be, in the fullness of our potential. The closest we ordinarily come to seeing others in this way is when we encounter children.
To expound on that a little more before going on, we want to add back in what we discussed previously – that, in order to be known, we have to be willing to be known. In order to be seen as the children we once were, we must know that aspect of ourselves... and allow it to be known.
Here is what that means, in practical terms.
As children first encounter each element of the world around them, emotions are felt more profoundly than after those things are experienced routinely. The older we get, the more accustomed we are to things around us, and the less we notice them. Children, on the other hand, are easily mesmerized by things we take for granted. Colors… sounds… shapes… birds… vehicles… machines… things that evoke wonder, or joy, or delight… or fear, uncertainty, or trepidation, for that matter. The size, predictability and intensity of each new thing plays a large role in how they are perceived, as does the reactions observed of other people nearby. If an animal looks charming but is treated fearfully by adults in the vicinity, it is more likely to be feared by the child seeing it for the first time.
All of these emotions are intense, and betray our vulnerability – particularly because, at this age, we do not have enough experience to know what will happen, and we lack the words to explain how we feel.
Any one of us who has been in a new place without a guide has these feelings all over again.
Any one of us with sensory processing dysfunction has these feelings all the time.
Any one of us with speech impairment knows the vulnerability of emotion without words.
No matter what age: the deeper the emotion, the more difficult to assemble words to adequately explain ourselves to others.
And so, now, we look at that second sense of the question, “How does God see us?” – meaning, in what manner does God take us into His perception?
We, the Missionaries of Saint Thorlak, propose as our particular focus, that God sees us as someone who waits.
God, the Unseen Creator, is not one who intrudes, overwhelms or insinuates. He waits. He meets us where we are, and until we willingly expose our hearts to Him, He waits.
And, here is the biggest rub. God is God. People are not. People are everything from sensitive to insensitive, compassionate to indifferent, thoughtful to clueless. When we reveal our deepest emotions to other people, we get a huge range of reactions which shape the way we trust and relate to others. If we expose our hearts to people who ignore or hurt us in our vulnerability, we quickly learn to keep ourselves hidden. Inversely, when we reveal our deepest joys and are met with joy in return, we learn the joy of being known... and are more comfortable being vulnerable.
How can we know? How can we tell which people will treat our exposed hearts with care, and which will walk past – or, worse, mock our littleness?
But we CAN be 100% certain that God will meet us with perfect love, perfect care, perfect joy, perfect understanding. He imagined us. He knows us even better than we know ourselves.
Any time we have the human need to be known, we can turn to God, Who waits until we are ready to expose our hearts to Him, and then receives us with perfect knowledge.
All we need to do is make ourselves known to Him.
Pray: Dear God… in order that You may know me better, I offer to You today the things that affect me the most. Help me to be aware of Your presence and feel You with me, that I may learn to trust You more.
Contemplate: Take that prayer one step further and imagine God present at each deep movement of our emotions. Is it comforting, or unsettling, to think that God sees us in these moments?
Relate: How often do we include others in our deepest experiences? How does that reflect our readiness to be seen by God?
Moving forward to our next Missionary Objective, we are encouraged “to teach people to see how God sees us, and how God sees those around us.” Good linguistic nitpickers that we are, the question crossed our minds as to how to interpret this objective. Are we to consider the character in which we are perceived by God, or the process itself by which God views us? We find value in both. So, let’s examine both!
This week, we will tackle the first interpretation, the character in which God perceives us. It is a daunting task to presume we have any capability of deciding how God does anything, we know, and so we state at the outset that our teachings are not definitive or complete. They are one aspect of a study that for many is not complete even after an entire lifetime. Our charism, our angle, if you will, is consistent with our entire Mission. Our suggestions are based on evidence of relationship. We are confident enough to put them forward as the core of our teaching, and comfortable enough to say that, in our humility, we do not intend to limit God.
How do we appear to God?
We could dive into Scriptural evidence, of which there is plenty, referring to God’s imagining us (Psalm 139), calling us each by name (Isaiah 43), and loving us powerfully (Romans 8). Yet, we choose a verse which gives a sense of the relationship God intends with us, 1 John 3:1: “See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.”
Of all the manners in which God perceives us, Missionaries of Saint Thorlak emphasize that God sees us as children. This theme is reiterated several times in Scripture: John 1, Matthew 19, Galatians 3 and 4, Romans 8, and 2 Corinthians 6, to name a few.
What do we know about children as a cultural concept?
God sees us in many ways, but the particular way we emphasize is His seeing each one of us as His child. When God sees you and me today, He sees us as we were when He first imagined us into being. He sees our innocence, potential and hope. He sees our most vulnerable needs. He sees the wishes of our hearts. He sees what frustrates us, what delights us, what confuses us. He sees our talents and applauds them as any proud parent applauds our tiniest achievements. He sees where we have been misled, hurt, betrayed and conned, and aches for the hurt we feel. He accepts each crumpled daisy we pick for Him as though it were a majestic bouquet fit for royalty, and He is not exaggerating. He loves us and delights in us and longs for the best for us… each one of us.
Those of us who have had difficult and ugly childhoods struggle greatly with this concept, of God seeing us as children. It triggers our impulse to flee or fight. It triggers hostilities and shame. It makes it no less true. It means that the ugly reality of the world has damaged our ability to believe that God is any different than those who violated our trust.
It makes us ask: If You, God, see me as a child, why didn’t You step in and shield that child from being violated? The answer is not simple. God can’t limit people in what they choose to do. God is the Father Who Loves Perfectly but exists in a different plane and is not a human hero who beats back evil with a sword. God conquers evil with love, and that takes much longer to bear out than intent to harm.
It makes us wonder: Do those among us who have not fully experienced childhood have difficulty comprehending a God who sees us as children? There are many who do not connect well with children, or enjoy play, or tolerate depending on others, or enjoy others depending on us. Anxiety and precocious academic interest are two things which quickly short-circuit childhood. Some have coined autism as a condition of “premature adulthood,” and that description fits in many ways. Some of us have had to grow up in a hurry when disaster, tragedy or family hardship preoccupies what would have been our innocence and our formative time to learn to trust well. It does not change how God sees us, but it significantly alters our ability to comprehend why that is important.
We encourage readers to ponder these thoughts in anticipation of next week, when we continue the discussion from the other sense of the statement: By what manner, or process, does God view us?
Pray: Heavenly Father! You are a Father to me, and You love me as your own child! Help me understand this relationship more fully!
Contemplate: How easily do I imagine God seeing me as a child? Do I feel at ease with this idea, or uneasy?
Relate: How would our relationships be different if we recalled each person before us as the child they once were?
It almost seems too easy when we think about this week’s topic. If our objective is to make ourselves known, there are plenty of ways to get our contact information out there. “Word of mouth” now includes social networking and mobile communications. Our faces and names can be pulled up in a moment’s search, and uploaded photos tell our stories faster than we can. Speaking up, joining in and being seen are the ways to be included, remembered and invited places.
A good number of us are not fond of groups, public places or elaborate activities, but we need be no less known. Personal introductions and detailed profile pages take care of that, even if we hang back, decline invitations or choose carefully what we do when we do go out.
Another number of us are not skilled in social situations. We are aware of our discomfort, our anxiety, our dislike of having to recall and meet expectations to gain approval. We may have had supportive adults in our childhood who provided mentorship in social skills through formal training or subtle role modeling. Or, we may have stayed off to the sidelines, through our own choice or being left out of the group before us.
Some of us are completely powerless, having every good intention and potential skill but facing people who refuse to know us. There’s no social skill model for that, other than those with the section on “dealing with rejection.”
The Mission of Saint Thorlak promotes “being known” as a protective factor against spiritual starvation. But it would be absurd to suggest that interpersonal disconnection is solvable by practicing better social skills and seeking wider exposure. Spiritual starvation goes far deeper than that.
The key to being known is found when we clarify: by whom should we strive to be known?
The very beginning of our chain of connectedness, you will recall, is the Source of Life: God. We did not spring up one day out of nothing, but rather, were imagined by God and brought into fulfillment as the person we are. We were created in immediate and necessary relationship to our Creator. The One who knows us best is the mind from which our realization came forth.
We realize ourselves most perfectly at the moment we become our own person.
Then, we travel down the chain on our life’s journey.
How well we retain our original, intended identity is a function of how true we stay to the original image.
To toss out some analogies…
No matter how connected we are, whether we have hundreds of connections or only one or two, we cannot be known for who we are if we do not know the original.
Numerous reasons exist for losing sight of ourselves. One scenario particularly relevant to people with autism is a processing dysfunction related to theory of mind whereby these people cannot recall defining characteristics about themselves – or cannot imagine how others perceive them. It is as though they can never quite trust that they are visible or memorable to others between face to face encounters. For those familiar with face-blindness (protopagnosia), this would be the inverse – self-blindness (autoagnosia).
This may be a neurological reality for some, but for others, the mere habit of comparing self to others, adapting our behavior or image to arbitrary ideals, can have the same effect. And then, there is the gradual drift away from our originally intended, God-imagined way of living. Just as teenagers assert their individuality by going against their parents’ wishes, we, too, frequently carve our own embellishments into our identities regardless of how far they might range from God’s intentions. Some of us end up looking quite differently from when we started out.
What we can do – what we MUST do – is get an accurate snapshot, without comparison or embellishment, using the principles of the Mission of Saint Thorlak: understanding, recognizing and addressing of our unedited selves through the lenses of caritas (acknowledging our value) voluntary humility (accepting what we are, as we are) and mercy (recognizing not only our imperfections, but our needs). We must be willing to look at our own image with love… because God loved the idea of us enough to make it reality.
We know how to face resisting being known by others. Now, we must face those times when we resist being known by ourselves… and, by God.
Pray: God, I come before you exactly as I am. Please show me who you intend me to be.
Contemplate: Do I go about my day thinking of myself as the person God imagined me to be?
Relate: In an unfamiliar setting, do I first think, “I do not know anybody!” or, “Nobody here knows me!” Which perspective keeps us closer to our true selves?
To understand "autoagnosia" from a reader's firsthand experience, visit our Guest Thoughts.
Objective #4: To make people aware that resisting our need to be known, and our need to be loved, limits our experience of God.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak, in its public form, has existed for just over one year now. We showed up unannounced on the web and social media on March 1, 2017, and we have been broadcasting ideas about spirituality ever since.
Interestingly, we have received ZERO questions as to where we came from, how we got here or who contributes to our posts. We could easily have dropped out of the sky as no more than an experiment to see if anyone would notice.
Initially, yes, the website and its social media satellites were put up to see if anyone else saw the vision we did and felt it was worth following. But The Mission of Saint Thorlak is no experiment. It is exactly as it says, a mission – a quest to end spiritual starvation, commenced in the mid-1980s by a person with autism who has spent many hours searching for light in the shadow of disconnection, and now believes the formula can be found in the Way of Saint Thorlak.
That person is me: Aimee O’Connell.
I am Aimee, the one who writes the material posted here and on social media. I am a Lay Carmelite. I have autism. I also have a Master’s degree in school psychology and extensive experience working with children, adolescents and adults with a variety of skills and strengths within the context of the conditions bringing them into my professional path.
I am slow to speak and wage constant battle with social anxiety, but people do not realize it. I spent my childhood being different, my adolescence feeling defective, and my adulthood wondering how I can be so competent yet so completely unknown. All the while, the people around me persisted in saying there was nothing wrong. “You are smart… you are well liked… you are perfectly fine!”
And trapped, because I know the truth about me which nobody seems to recognize, acknowledge or believe. I can continue under the façade they give me, or protest, and lose their support.
I have always been more comfortable in the company of “broken” people – that is to say, people who recognize their needs and accept them. I refer just as squarely to people with disabilities as to people with full physical and emotional stamina who nonetheless recognize that life dishes out more challenges than consolations. I do not purposefully seek out people who struggle because I feel sorry for them… I gravitate there because I, too, struggle, and I draw strength from their example. I find spiritual nourishment being accepted by them. It is here I feel my most recognized – my most “known.”
For most of my life, I did not have words to describe what I meant. I came closer when I studied the work and writings of Jean Vanier and Father Henri Nouwen, who both do a wonderful job explaining the theology and psychology of brokenness and embracing exactly who we are, as we are. Yet the synthesis… the union of awareness and purpose, contemplation and action… did not take root in me until I encountered the quiet, unknown and little-understood Patron Saint of Iceland.
I was 42 years old when I first heard the name of Saint Thorlak. As a fifth generation American with no Scandinavian roots, I did not have much cause to consider Iceland or its saints until my homeschooled daughter took an interest in that country and I simply followed her curiosity.
The unassuming but holy life of Bishop Thorlak was recorded by saga-writers in the Icelandic Middle Ages for Icelandic posterity, not with any inkling that his story might have an impact in the 21st century. When I read this Saga, I did so with only historical intent. However, the more I read, the more I recognized someone with same challenges as me, who lived by a pattern that fulfilled the principles of Vanier and Nouwen. I felt great walls trembling within as I saw, in the life of St. Thorlak, that it is not fleeing from brokenness that creates barriers to being known and understood. It is failing to assert our place among the ranks of the broken because we mistakenly feel obligated to live up to the façades people want to see – denying our brokenness to allay THEIR unease.
St. Thorlak faced that, too, from the days of his precociously academic youth to his ascent in social and political rank as a cleric. Relatives and benefactors pushed him higher and higher, sending him abroad to study and urging him to pursue political alliances, Church appointments, even marriage, because he showed such “promise.” Even as he earned praise and opportunities to rise above the hard conditions demanded by life in Iceland, he was happiest among the broken, poor, infirm and ordinary right there in his homeland. He frequently invited outcasts to dine with him in his Bishop’s residence – not because he wanted to help them, but because he needed to be around people who would recognize and accept him as the bashful, struggling but affable man he really was.
The important people saw Thorlak as someone important… and so, they never really knew him.
In part, this is why I have kept my name out of the picture as long as I have. This Mission is the realization of my lifelong wish: to broadcast these ideas as far and as wide as there are people who find them useful, in a format that is easy to understand and universally accessible. I dread thinking that this effort might be taken as another achievement in a polished portfolio – another adornment on a façade imposed by those who do not truly know me. I will not let this Mission become another source of disconnection.
I am Aimee. I am just me. I struggle every single day, but rarely in sorrow. I struggle more as an aspiring athlete seeking to become stronger and endure longer with each trial. I am not competing for the top prize. I simply want to look back afterward and see that I did well by my teammates.
You – readers, followers, and every person I have not yet met: you are my teammates.
And, now that you know my name, let us get on with this Mission.
Pray: Dear God: I offer everything I am, exactly as I am, this moment, this day. Let it be YOU who greets me in the eyes and words of people around me, that I may more fully experience who YOU know me to be – and not limited by what other people want me to be.
Contemplate: Who do I know better: myself, as God imagines me… or the person others see when looking toward me? How closely do these two images match up?
Relate: When I encounter others, do I see them for who they are, or do I see them as I want them to be?
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