The scene is a kitchen table, where you are sitting with someone from your family. This person is like the glue that holds the family together, even though you are a vast, widely scattered family with far-reaching branches. You are being given a long list of details the day before you all gather together for a weekend reunion.
Different family members are named, and requests are made. Aunt Margaret is sensitive to the sun, so make sure she has shade. Thad has an egg allergy, so no mayonnaise for him. The twins are very quiet, and they don’t like hugs, so be sure not to come on too strong with them, and they really hate being told how much they look alike. Uncle Bert is fun to be around, but please, no politics – he doesn’t know when to stop. Wendy is bringing her new boyfriend who is not too popular with the rest of the family. And please, be sure to congratulate Kevin on his new job. He’s very nervous about this promotion and we want to give him all the support we can. Oh! I think Ronnie is going to be there, but she’s coming alone – so don’t ask any questions.
Are you getting all this?
Depending on who you are, you may be eagerly taking mental notes, or zoning out. You might be ready to dive into the thick of things or wanting to run for the hills. Maybe you only married into this family and are completely overwhelmed. This seems like a high maintenance gathering, in any case.
This situation is purely hypothetical, but is a very useful parable to help illustrate what social skills classes are like for people with any degree of autism. The range of people with autism is a wide enough spread that it could include any of the reactions above, along with several hundred others. But it is all the same kind of experience: being instructed in the way other people hope you will act in situations that are somewhat predictable but, in the end, unable to plan down to each conversational detail. It is intimidating, and, unfortunately, in some measure, artificial.
The person giving the instruction in our scene probably has good reason. Two guests she named had medical conditions, after all, and presumably the others have track records suggesting how they might behave in group gatherings. The motive could be keeping the peace, or a genuine personal concern for the people involved.
We are putting you in this situation and asking you what you would do as a Missionary of Saint Thorlak. For, as it is a parable to social skills instruction, it is also a very useful parable for socializing in general.
A big chunk of our readers will have no difficulty answering. To them, we give a nod of appreciation and permission to coast through the rest of this article.
The other chunk are the ones who feel tension just imagining this. You are our intended audience.
It is very well for us to prescribe greeting others and letting God greet us through them. It flows naturally when socializing is easy and desirable. It is much more difficult – perhaps impossible – for those who find socializing difficult, or overwhelming, or even… irritating.
There are many, many people who find socializing irritating. Autism or no autism.
We could take the time to explore why this is – maybe these people are spent at the end of the day and want to retreat into solitude to recharge. Maybe they find human nature itself irksome and absurd, or maybe they are highly anxious and nauseated at the idea of socializing. Maybe they are genuinely depressed and do not have the energy or the empathy to reach out to others. Maybe the people surrounding them are hostile, or snobbish, or interested in things that are not at all appealing.
The bottom line: Nobody likes socializing when it’s forced, or when it feels forced.
We concur. In fact, forced socializing violates our requirement for sincerity in everything we do.
What, then, would a Missionary of Saint Thorlak do in this family reunion scenario, or any situation, if they sincerely have no desire to socialize?
Above all else: Do not socialize.
This is not a trick answer. It is given as sincerely as we expect you to act.
The Mission of Saint Thorlak does not promote socializing.
We promote connection.
There is a huge fundamental difference between these concepts. People can socialize without ever connecting, and people can connect without ever socializing.
Socializing implies everything we think of in an interaction between people. It takes skill, work and time. It requires physical and emotional energy. It is the goal of social skills training and is often the only means people think of when they envision connecting with others.
Connecting means: joining, linking, uniting or bonding two or more things together (via dictionary.com).
[Did you catch that? “Two or more”? Are your bells ringing?]
The act of connection occurs when you, as you are, authentically experience someone as they are, in a shared moment. And, when it occurs as part of your consecration of yourself, as you are, to God’s service, Jesus is brought present.
A connection can be something as simple and fleeting as eye contact, or as complex as enjoying a lifelong friendship.
Missionaries of Saint Thorlak are called to connect. So, at this imagined family reunion, our Missionaries would be expected to connect, somehow, with those attending.
What does that look like?
It means, for our purposes, not focusing on the long lists of what to do, what to say, or how to act. It means approaching each person and engaging with them, as you are, as they are, as you are able.
“It means a lot that you are here.”
“You are an important part of our family.”
“I always remember the time you __________. It has stuck with me this long!”
“Are you glad you came?”
“Would you like some lemonade?”
These encounters are brief, but personal, and meaningful, and sincere. And, each is a moment blessing you and blessing the other person – by Jesus, Himself, present.
This feeds you spiritually.
This feeds the other person spiritually.
This takes less than ten seconds.
You could easily fulfill these connections and then retreat someplace alone, and still say with truth and satisfaction, "Mission Accomplished."
If you are someone who shudders at the idea of social gatherings, this is manageable. And it prevents spiritual starvation.
If you are someone who genuinely cannot enjoy socializing, after school or after work, wanting weekends alone to recharge, or feeling like you can barely get out of bed, you can still make sure you are spiritually fed, and you can still spiritually feed others.
This week, we ask you to replace “socializing” with “connecting” and see how that reframes things.
PRAY: Heavenly Father, please show me how to connect with the people in my proximity. Help me to remain sincere, and help me to experience what it feels like when You connect with me through them.
CONTEMPLATE: How well do I routinely connect with others? Is this because I have a misunderstanding of what “connection” means?
RELATE: Practice, practice, practice. Connect! And, if you’d like to have fun with this idea, make it a challenge to connect with as little as possible. How well can you connect in a glance? A smile? A nod? Can you connect in absolute silence? See how many ways you can surprise yourself.
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