Seeing life from the experience of others can be challenging. As a child I remember abhorring the taste of green olives, and I remember eating and trying my best to savor the flavor of a green olive and deciding it was impossible to appreciate; it wasn’t for years that I came to enjoy olives and finally appreciate how other people could like them too.
But learning to appreciate the perceptions and perspectives of an autistic child has proven vastly more challenging than learning to appreciate the flavor of olives. I often tell people that things happen in households with autistic people that are never shared publicly—and often it’s not because they’re offensive or shameful, but because they’re so strange that most people just couldn’t process what a parent might describe.
Just a few years back our son, diagnosed with autism fifteen years ago, would several times a day experience spikes of anxiety—his eyes would widen and he would begin furiously talking in only semi-coherent statements, and if it was really bad might strike himself on the head or bite his hand. For the life of us we couldn’t figure out what the trigger was until finally my wife said, “He thinks that when the refrigerator hums, it’s because of him,” and indeed that was the issue: he really felt and believed that there was a connection between what was happening in his mind and the refrigerator motor “deciding” to turn on. It took days of talking him through the situation to have him finally realize that the refrigerator motor turning on and off was in no way connected with anything he was thinking or feeling. If you think about the last time that you walked around a corner and someone was standing there silently and you experienced that little jolt of adrenaline upon seeing them, you might be able to empathize with what he felt when he heard the hum of the refrigerator coming on.
For centuries “normal” people have written different-thinking people off as demoniacs or psychopaths, but the prevalence of autism today encourages—indeed, forces—some of us to try to empathize, as challenging as that can be. Perhaps we can view the prevalence of autism as a way for Nature/God/the Universe to stretch and exercise our ability and willingness to empathize with others. If I can make sense of an autistic person’s behavior based on his perception of his environment, can I also make sense of a person’s political views based on his perception of his world? Everyone thinks, believes, and behaves as they do for reasons; each of us has a responsibility to listen, and this should not simply be the kind of listening where, as someone shares their view, we are already preparing a counterargument; it needs to be a deeper listening—a listening to the fears and sorrows that inform a person’s attitudes and behaviors—a kind of listening properly understood by Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh.
At the beginning of my teaching career I taught seventh grade for a few years, and it would occasionally happen with that age group that a couple of students would come running into the classroom during recess, red-faced and teary eyed, clearly embroiled in something between an altercation and an all-out fight, and they would fulminate against each other in the strongest terms, describing each other’s very worst perceived characteristics.
The reality in America right now is that millions of left-leaning people watch nightly “news” personalities lampoon the Republican party and conservative politicians, while millions of right-leaning people listen to talk radio hosts skewer the Democratic party and liberal politicians. Conservative AM talk radio listeners relish listening to their hosts during the day just as liberal television viewers plop down in front of Comedy Central and HBO in the evening for the same reason. In both cases we have not school children but millions—tens of millions—of people engaged in a cultural phenomenon that may have already compromised America’s role as a leader of the free world.
Recall the four stages of a relationship: infatuation, intimacy, disillusionment, and deepening love. It should be noted that infatuation correlates with the literary genre of comedy, intimacy correlates with the literary genre of romance, while disillusionment correlates with tragedy, and, unresolved, becomes satire. Satiric comedy has a tone and a flavor about it that is not sweet but that is bitter, even sardonic. Anyone who has been paying attention to television knows that about thirty years ago, the general flavor of our media began to change.
It’s sometimes disheartening to speak with people who represent either of the regrettable political “sides” in this country—liberals whose knowledge of the bible or religious community is woefully misinformed and narrow—who rail against “Red State xenophobia,” and conservatives who liken the urban centers on the coasts to Sodom and Gomorrah or who label gay and feminist subcultures as degenerate and ungodly. Depending on which camp we find ourselves in, we might laugh at “the other side” for their ignorance, but human beings can be easily driven to extreme behavior if the message and delivery are strong enough.
Only two months ago 28-year-old Edgar Welch marched into a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, convinced by a false news story that Hillary Clinton had connections to a child prostitution ring operating out of the restaurant—none of which was true. And yet the AR-15 rifle he was wielding contained live bullets. Fortunately, none were discharged. But now consider a far more sobering case: the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsis—hundreds of thousands of people chopped up by machetes—was in significant measure fueled by messages disseminated over radio broadcast. Messages matter. Perceptions have real-world consequences. Everyone has a responsibility to resist the dangerous temptation to reduce “the other” or “the other side” to her or his most dislikable qualities.
It’s interesting to look squarely at what happened during this last presidential election. While the left-wing media increasingly turned Donald Trump into the incarnation of everything the liberal mind abhors, the right-wing media increasingly turned Hillary Clinton into the incarnation of everything the conservative mind abhors. Both wings reduced the “other”—meaning the candidate and that candidate’s supporters—into every undesirable characteristic imaginable. In truth what we’ve witnessed in this country in the last months directly offends the spirit of the story in Acts of the Apostles 2:5-12. This is the scene where Peter, finding himself leader of the very earliest Christian community, speaks with tremendous presence and charisma in his own language to people of many nations and tongues and yet all of them hear his words in their own languages. It’s a story in which the angels of invitation, welcoming, unity, and solidarity drive away the wicked spirits of estrangement and division—really it’s the Holy Spirit manifest.
The Holy Spirit may be most alive in those who seek not to be heard but to listen, in those who seek not to be right but to understand others, and in those who seek not to be vindicated but to empathize.