Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of people who share my story. People’s whose lives are impacted by autism in ways that the statistics and research can’t quantify or qualify.
It’s the silent and subtle ways that societal pressure eats away at the esteem of young students who fail to measure up to the social norms and unwritten rules of acceptable social behavior.
Like me, there are many who “passed” and pretended our way through life because being someone else, pretending to understand the unwritten rules, wasn’t a matter of social acceptance, it became a matter of survival.
Below is an excerpt from my new book I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor.
Fear and False Images
When I was in middle school, the fear of not being enough finally took its grip on my life. The fear of not being enough wrapped its fingers around my throat and squeezed with enough force to finally squeeze the life out of me. My life, the life that God had given me, the life that was complete with imperfections and weaknesses, began to disappear. What began to emerge was an image. I was not a ninety-foot statue, but it was a larger-than-life false representation of the real me nonetheless.
One of the first signs that I was erecting a false image was the decline of my academic interest. I had always been a great student growing up. I loved to read. I enjoyed learning. I can remember the feeling of accomplishment and joy when I was able to grasp new ideas and new concepts. One of my favorite subjects was history. I particularly enjoyed biographies and documentaries. I found something intriguing about the stories of historic people and places. Even more than fiction, the life stories of historical figures captured my imagination in ways that nothing else could. Education was my gateway into the world. Education was my strength; it was where I found value. School was the place where I could prove I was more than just an odd bird who didn’t socialize much; school made me special.
All that seemed to change in middle school. As it turned out, being smart and being a bookworm didn’t make me special, it made me stupid. I never did quite understand the irony of how being smart in middle school could make me feel so stupid and ignorant. It felt as though the more visible my academic achievements were, the more violent middle school became. Middle school was violent because any attempt to change a person without love is an act of violence.
The moment I stopped loving myself was the moment I became violent and dangerous, not to others, but to myself.
I once heard a story of a man isolated on a deserted island for years. Realizing he would be on the island for an extended period of time, he decided to make himself some shelter. The story goes on to say that after some time had lapsed, another man washed up on the shore of this remote deserted island. After spending years alone on the island, the first man was excited to see another human being. Running up to his new visitor, he said, “I am so excited to see another human being after all these years. Let me show you around the island!” The man quickly grabbed his new friend by the hand and dragged him to a location on the island where there were three huts made from sticks, trees, and mud. The second man was puzzled by the three dwellings and asked the first man, “What are the three huts for?” The first man quickly responded, “I knew I would be here a while, so I decided I needed to make myself some shelter. The first hut is my home.” “Great” the second man replied, “What is the hut in the middle?” The first man replied, “Well, I am a devout Christian, so I knew I would need a place to worship. The second hut is my church.” “Great,” the second man replied. “I am a Christian, too. May I ask what the third hut is for?” “Oh,” said the first man, “that’s the church I used to attend.”
Life for many people is similar to the story of this man. We can blame the world for our lack of peace when the reality is that we have a more difficult time getting along with ourselves than we do getting along with others. Bullying played a role in my life over those years, but if I were to be honest, the person who was most violent toward me was myself. I wasn’t able to have a healthy relationship with myself. No one person made me feel as bad and as worthless as I made myself feel. When we are unhappy with who we are and how God made us, it leads to a massive downward spiral into violence against self. While I never turned to self-harm as a means of violence against myself, I did change who I was because I was unhappy with how I was made. I was unhappy with the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could not be as outgoing as the other kids my age. I was terribly unhappy with how socially inept I seemed to be. I was painfully unhappy about the fact that being smart was not cool and definitely not popular. The thought of being different made me feel deficient.
Now, what I am about to say next will most likely go against most of your traditional view of faith and maybe even your traditional view of sin, but before you completely abandon ship, I want you to take a close look at the perspective I am offering, and determine for yourself if it even remotely explains our human proclivity to behave badly. Are you ready? Being “lost” is not about bad behavior; being lost is the result of doing a bad job of being someone that God didn’t create you to be. You will always fail at being someone you were not meant to be. The result of the continued failure to be someone you are not is the bad behavior (sin) that is merely an effort to make ourselves less deficient, less depressed, or less different than everyone else. Sin is the result of a continued dissatisfaction with who God made us to be.
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