Friday, July 31, 2009

Deep thoughts, a mystery, and a horse montage

I'll be visiting family in the US for the next two weeks, so blogging will be light. In the meantime:

John C. Wright on the supernatural origins of the universe; also, his characteristically fun to read takedown of materialism

William Lane Craig argues that the tensed A-theory of time is more compatible with the nature of God than tenseless B-theory

And to overcome my tempation to make life and faith too academic, TheoCenTriC has some thoughts on Christian mystery

And on a lighter note, a hilarious literal interpretation of the Penny Lane music video

Friday, July 24, 2009

Asperger's in pop culture

I have a confession to make: I don't watch much TV. Not much of anything made later than 1999 anyway (the year MST3K, the finest television show ever made, aired its last episode). I'm a crusty curmudgeon like that. I've never seen an episode of Bones or House; I'm too busy watching Quantum Leap and tut-tutting about how they don't make shows like that anymore, no siree. So I when I read this article in Maclean's about the growing prevalance of characters with AS in television, movies and books, I was somewhat surprised. Before I go any further, I should mention that, though I haven't seen some of the shows mentioned in the article, I've heard about them, and I am familiar with other shows, movies, and books featuring characters with AS and I have a general feel for how it is portrayed in pop culture, so I'm going by that. Don't hesitate to call me out on anything that I get wrong.

Seeing as how Rainman was the only autistic character in mainstrem film and television for over a decade, I suppose I should be pleased by this sudden widespread awareness and acknowledgement of ASD (autism spectrum disorders). And in a way I am. But I'd be happier about it if the characters had more than one dimension.

Now I don't have a problem with stereotypes of AS as such. I invoke them all the time, and they do have some truth in them. The problem rather, is that every heavily stereotyped TV, film, and book character means one less opportunity to create a deeper, more realistic portrayal of people with AS; moreover, it gives a superficial and sometimes even false idea of what it is like to have it.

For example, the article describes the extreme giftedness of many of the aspie (and ambiguously aspie) characters:
Christopher Boone knows every prime number up to 7,057; another autistic hero from teen fiction, 16-year-old Simon Lynch of Ryne Douglas Pearson’s Simple Simon, has mathematical abilities great enough to crack a NSA security code. Bones Brennan is a brilliant forensic anthropologist, trained in four martial arts, and a bestselling novelist who speaks Japanese; Zack Addy has an IQ north of 163, a photographic memory and two doctorates. House is, roughly speaking, more intelligent than the rest of his medical team combined. On the ABC series Boston Legal, it is Jerry Espenson’s Asperger’s that provides the attention to detail that makes him a master of financial law. Lisbeth Salander, 24, had a horrific childhood, but emerged as a brilliant computer hacker.
There is a little truth in that. There are aspies out there with genius IQ's and multiple doctorates and the ability to figure out the square root of 145,161 faster than a calculator. But there are also a lot of aspies out there, probably the majority of us in fact, who are everything from above-average but not genius to below average. And even those who possess genius IQ's and rare gifts are not guaranteed of success. For every person with an ASD and a genius IQ who is a doctor or lawyer or a Silicone Valley millionaire, there is probably another one who's underemployed because he lacks social skills to the point where no one finds it quirky and charming anymore, or he has bizarre mannerisms, or his gifts simply aren't in demand.

It is only hinted at in the article, but something else I've noticed about popular depictions of AS is that the characters' personalities seem to consist almost entirely of whatever autistic traits the writers found interesting, without any consideration as to how autistic traits manifest themselves differently in different people and the interaction between autistic traits and other personality traits. Come to think of it, it seems like the characters don't even have personality traits that don't come straight from the diagnositic checklist. Just give the character a couple of compelling quirks, some blunt dialogue, a chronic distaste for the vast majority of people, a single-minded pursuit of some goal, and the emotional range of Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, then tack on about 50 IQ points, and you're done. As much as I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I came away from the book hoping that no one who read it would get the idea that it was an accurate representation of Asperger's. The story's hero, Christopher Boone, is so cold, so strangely detached from the people in his life, so oblivious to the emotional impact of the events in the book, it's almost disturbing. And, for most of us anyway, entirely inaccurate. It's as though Mark Haddon simply read somewhere that a classic trait of AS is lack of emotional reciprocity and never even bothered to find out whether that meant a lack of all but primal emotions in general (it doesn't) or difficulty in understanding and expressing the more complex emotions that we do, in fact, feel, including strong emotional attachment to people. And then there is Christopher's complete lack of humour, which anyone who has spent any time with actual aspies for more than ten minutes knows is completely at odds with reality. (For the record, my husband, who also has AS, is, in addition to being a caring guy, also one of the funniest people I've ever met).

The writer of the Maclean's goes on to describe another novel with an aspie protaganist, this one female:

In one of her [Elinor Lipman's-ed.] earlier novels, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift (2003), when a female autistic doctor finally scores a boyfriend, she is hilariously clinical about their first kiss. “When he leaned in for the actual compression of lips, my arms went up and circled his neck, causing a lingering farewell and inducing a near-reluctance to part that was unanticipated.” One (female) reviewer wrote that, in the touchy-feely world of women’s lit, it was refreshing to have a heroine “as in touch with her emotions as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.”

"Actual compression of lips?" Seriously? I know she was going for humour here, but I have to wonder if people actually believe we think like that. Not all portrayals are that awful, of course, and some are pretty cool, but still, we're not all the blunt, ballsy geek grrls of the movies and books (though some of course are, and awesome ones at that). We're just as likely to resemble the gentle, feminine, quirky Luna Lovegood as we are Lisbeth Salander, the tenacious computer hacker with the dragon tattoo. We're just as likely to be into things like art and poetry as we are computer programs and molecular biology. Many aspie women are emotional, caring, and intuitive, and the ways in which those aspects of our femininity interact with our autistic traits are complex. Probably too complex, I'll admit, to portray accurately in a TV show or movie whose focus is on other things, but complex enough to make a compelling character study.

And finally there's that whole I-tell-it-like-it-is-and-I-don't-give-a-damn-what-you-think aura that some (though definitely not all) characters with AS have. It makes for good comedy, but it isn't how many of us really are. As we are growing up, we do tend to say uncomfortable truths and opinions and say them bluntly, but by the time we reach adulthood most of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) not to. Sometimes we even overcompensate by becoming quiet, shy, and eager to please people who'd love to tell it like it is once and awhile but don't. And not only do we eventually learn to pick up on what others think of us, but many of us care about it a great deal, sometimes going to great lengths to try to be liked. If we find ourselves alone, more often than not it isn't because we dislike people, but because they dislike us, or because being whispered about, laughed at, picked on, and treated condescendingly has taken too great a toll. Many people with Asperger's experience the same desire to be with people and be liked by people as anyone else would, and yet find interacting with them to be mentally draining and uncomfortable. It's a paradox that can cause intense pain, to the point where some aspies have taken their own lives. And yet not only is that aspect of AS rarely shown, but many of the characters are actually portrayed as being perfectly happy being alone.

I don't mind one bit if we keep the archetypal blunt, humourless, left-brained loner geniuses. In the right hands, they make for great TV, movies, and books. But I hope we stop calling them aspies, and instead start introducing characters who actually feel like real people-people who happen to have Asperger's Syndrome.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

imonk hits the nail right on the head usual, with this thoughtful post on what many people are looking for in a church. An excerpt:

We long to be loved, to be quietly accepted, to be told to lie down in green pastures, to stop the race, to pray in silence. To be given a spirituality of dignity, not a spirituality that is a feature of this week’s sermon series on how to have more sex, make more money, have better kids, smile more, achieve great things and otherwise turn the salvation of Jesus into a means to an American end.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Following Christ may result in oddness

Those of us with Asperger's tend to stand out without even really trying. We speak differently, move differently, act differently, dress differently; we avoid situations that most people gravitate towards and spend way more free time than most people pursuing interests like entomology, quantum physics, and obscure retro arcade machine games. We resist following rules and trends that don't make sense to us, like backstabbing our co-workers to get a promotion and wearing acid wash jeans.

As an rather eccentric oddball (and oddball eccentric), I have found that there is something deeply freeing about the Christian faith. At its very core is the most eccentric person to ever walk the earth, eccentric because He was the very centre of Goodness in a warped and lopsided world. Many of those who have followed closely in His footsteps have done the oddest and most radical things imaginable, like the well-to-do landowner who left his 300 acres of land to live a life of bare sustenance in the desert, or the Roman officer who washed the boots of servants, or the seventeen-year-old girl who led a small army into battle, or the young noblewoman who ran away from home, traded her beautiful clothes for a plain, rustic habit, cut off her hair and went barefoot. Jesus does not care whether or not we dress fashionably, have the right houses in the right neighbourhoods, and say all the right things; moreover, he is not concerned about whether or not our Christian walk looks just like everyone else's. He cares only of our love for Him and our neighbour, in whatever odd or quirky ways we might express it. And He not only frees us to be oddballs and eccentrics, but even more, he frees us from eccentricity that is merely reactionary, superficial, and empty, instead ordering it towards things deep and permanent, ordering towards the centre: Goodness, Beauty, Truth, Love, Justice.

Now His church, unfortunately, tends to forget this. Your average American/Canadian church sometimes feels more like a social club. Certain types of people fit in and certain types don't, and the crazy thing is, if the Saints themselves walked into one of those churches they would probably be among the misfits. There is something seriously wrong with this. When we've started judging each other by appearance and status and possessions, there's a good chance we're no longer seeing each other as brothers and sisters. When we're comformed to the world, it's doubtful we're conformed to Christ. And when we have banished eccentricity, perhaps we have lost the centre.

Somewhere, one of those crotchety old church ladies who warned us all of the dangers of guitars and modern art in church feels vindicated

The Crescat is having a contest for the ugliest church art. It's hard to pick just one, but the statue of Mary in number 15 looks like she's thinking about chopping you in half with her lightsaber.

It's still hard to beat the giant Jesus on I-75, though. Or this.

Update: I almost forgot to tip my hat to Fr. Longenecker of the wonderful blog Standing on My Head for this one, how rude of me.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Compassion means "to suffer with", not "to kill"

Euthanasia and assisted suicide have made headlines lately, with the Quebec College of Physicians' endorsement of the former and the death of a renown conductor by the latter. And with bill C-384, which would legalize assisted suicide, up for debate in Parliament this fall, the issue is not likely to go away. Forgive me if this post sounds strident, but I must admit to having little patience for anything that cheapens the value of human life.

And euthanasia and assisted suicide do just that. Whenever these things are debated, we hear a lot of words like dignity, choice and compassion, and even I will admit that they seem appropriate, on the surface. But look more closely, and it becomes strikingly apparent that not only do euthanisia and assisted suicide rarely involve any of these things, they negate them.

To decide that it is acceptable to hasten the death or assist in the suicide of someone is to declare that his or her life is no longer worth living. Only the person's death retains any dignity; his continued existence has been stripped of it. It starts with the terminally ill (a questionable phrase, since doctors can rarely tell how long a patient is going to live), who, we figure, are going to die soon anyway, probably painfully-never mind that palliative care is better than ever at treating pain. And it doesn't stay there. It extends steadily outward, to those in comas, those with severe physical and mental disabilities, those with chronic pain, those with less severe disabilities like Down Syndrome, even to the mentally ill and clinically depressed, until the lives of thousands of people, whose disabilities and illnessess any of us could develop at any time, are declared unworthy to be lived.

If it is about choice, it's a warped version of it. When choice becomes the ultimate expression of human worth and dignity, a lot of people end up losing those things. Since the severely disabled and the comatose can't make their own choices, the thinking goes, they are effectively non-persons, and not only that, but they interfere with the choices of healthy people by being a burden on them, so their worth actually becomes negative. This kind of thinking can lead to astonishing cruelty. In the U.K, a man with Down Syndrome who was in hospital after suffering a stroke starved to death because doctors neglected to insert a feeding tube. People with severe brain damage are routinely dehydrated; we only hear about it when a family member objects. In the Netherlands, infants with severe disabilities are sometimes killed. Even people who are considered by society to be able to make their own choices are vulnerable to having the choice essentially made for them. So often there is pressure in the form of fear of being a burden, neglect and abuse, sub-standard care, and untreated depression and anxiety. And then there is a society that reduces people to their utility, leading to the neglect of people whom it deems a drain on society. Last year in Oregon, where assisted suicide is covered by the state health care plan, a woman with lung cancer was denied chemotherapy, and a few years before that, a man was denied a double organ transplant. There is already talk of the need to ration health care, and it isn't exactly a secret as to who will be denied treatment.

There's no compassion in euthanasia and assisted suicide. Compassion means "to suffer with", and to suffer with someone they have to actually be alive. True compassion is hard. Euthanasia is easy. True compassion forms an intimate bond not only with the people we suffer with, but to everyone who has ever suffered, which is everyone who has ever lived. Euthanasia is lonely. Sometimes it is the absolutely autonomous soul, the one who refuses to lean on others, who dies from it. But more often than not who dies is the people those autonomous souls do not want leaning on them, those that they don't want to comfort, to provide for, to suffer with.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The state of the Christian blogosphere

Internet Monk recently posted an insightful critique of the Christian blogosphere. I especially appreciated this point:

One sees very little that is of a really radical nature in the discipleship or community exemplified in the Christian blogosphere. Despite a lot of adjectives suggesting radicalism, the Christian spirituality of the blogosphere appears to be quite conventional, especially in regard to issues of comfort, finances, lifestyle, children, community, mission, etc.

I'd like to delve more deeply into this issue in future posts, but in the meantime, be sure to read the whole thing as there is a lot to chew on there.