Victory from Defeat

After I wrote my earlier post, Defeated by Shakespeare, quite a few readers told me the story made them sad, because I said I could not enjoy something that many ordinary people like a lot. In subsequent conversations, I tried to understand that feeling, which I did not share.

I do not feel any sadness when I say, “I don’t enjoy sitting in the audience for a play.” There is no sense of loss associated with that statement. It’s just how I am. I do not feel deprived. I also do not feel sad when others don’t enjoy something I like. It’s just how they are, I guess, and I do what I want and they do what they want. I’ve learned that I focus on details more intensely than regular people, and there are many things I enjoy immensely that are not noticed at all by others. My friends may not share my joy at spending hours photographing flowers at the Smith College botanical garden, but that won’t stop me from doing it, and I won’t like them less for not wanting to be there, too.

So why do some people say they feel sad for me? I think it’s because they are projecting their own feelings and ideas onto me, and in this case, their expressed sadness is misplaced. They say, “theatre is a rich, rewarding experience, and you are missing it.” But my response, “well, you are missing the joy of watching the mechanical perfection inside this engine,” is equally true. There are countless things any of us can observe and learn from, and we can’t all appreciate all the possible things.

It's worth considering that other people may not appreciate the same things we do, and the things those people appreciate or enjoy are every bit as valid and worthwhile to them as ours are to us.

And we often end up in trouble when we try see the actions of others in the context of our own likes, dislikes, and values. Other people are other people. When I say I don't want to sit through a play, don't be sad. Recognize we're different. And I won't be sad if you don't accompany me to the botanical garden. In fact, the thought would not even occur to me, because it's not logical.

There is one thing I am sad about, which I expressed in the original story and I'll elaborate upon here. I am saddened when I observe events like "Defeated by Shakespeare" because they highlight the gulf that exists between my Aspergian thinking and the thought processes of much of the neurotypical world. And one thing I want more than almost anything is to be normal; to be ordinary. And at one level, I know I never will be, and I know the way I am is good for me. But I can't escape feeling a twinge of sadness when it's shoved in my face as it was that evening.

Otherwise, you can enjoy your things and I'll enjoy mine, and there will always be some things we'll both enjoy, and some things we'll both hate, and the rest - one or the other will like them, more or less. Because people are different, and I'm more different than most. At least, according to that DSM manual.


The Anti-Wife said…
I have yet to see a really good definition of normal. It's one of those nebulous concepts that means something different to everyone and can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. So I think if you want to believe you are normal, you are!
Polly Kahl said…
HI John, I can't speak for anyone else, but my sadness was about your level of discomfort, not your lack of interest in Shakespeare. Even though those events are uncomfortable for most of us, it sounded to me like it was excrutiating for you.

On the other hand, it helped me understand my Aspergian relative more. He has never joined in during social events, and even at family parties cannot sit and join in on group conversations. He is always off tending to plants, examining trees, or in particular weed whacking, which he seems to be able to do endlessly, even if he is in the midst of a fancy picnic. I have never understood it, because he really appreciates being invited, so why does he not join in? I wondered, why does he even bother coming? After reading your post I see the whole thing differently. I now understand how awful those events might be for him. I'm sending him your post so he'll let me know if that's true or not. I also resolve to never again ask him to join in, but rather I will allow him to weed whack, identify plants, and trim greenery to his hearts content. If that's what he enjoys, why not?
Stephen Parrish said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Parrish said…
Great post.

I agree with Anti-Wife and will go a step further: traits generally considered to be "normal" usually don't appeal to me.

Even though I memorized them forty years ago, Theoreau's words still move me today:

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Anonymous said…
I guess that we all see the gulf that exists for you. And that makes us sad. You are not that different than the rest of us. The water is not that deep or cold or perilous as you think. You are much closer to the shore than you realize. Thank goodness that you are not ordinary! I do hope that someday that the tides will change for you. And you will allow the soft drifting currents to carry you back to the shore. I know that you need to wait for the rough waters to subside. But if you look up into the distance though you will see the lighthouse illuminating your voyage and recognize that the harbor really is a safe place to be...
ssas said…
A lot of this rings true for me as a writer/editor. I live in a very social neighborhood, where the moms spend a great deal of time shopping, doing lunch, playdates, volunteering for school, handling kids' sports, etc. But obviously, most of writing and editing is very lonely work.

I love to socialize, too, but 90% of my time I'd choose to be alone, if I could. Even my sport is a loner sport: snowboarding. Me on an empty run, me at my computer--I need those times.

But people don't understand it. Other people crave interraction. I want to interract, too, but I cannot function without my alone time.

Also, most people feel sorry for me because I haven't sold much. I find most of my joy in the process, but most people are about the destination.
John, I admire and even envy your ability to put life into its proper perspective. Yesterday I had a nasty Autism Mom moment and I did exactly what you have said we should try not to do - I put MY feelings onto my daughter. I call it a mother's love and protectiveness. Perhaps I need to rethink it a little though. I blogged my woe, of course. And today I'm happily editing and writing and making dinner for a lovely woman with her own ASD son who just had her third baby as a gift to her. We dust ourselves off and soldier on. And you, my friend, are a great leader for the troops.

John Robison said…
Polly, I was uncomfortable, but I left. And then I was OK.

So many people have not figured out that it's OK to leave, and they stay, and get drunk or high to forget the discomfort, and that startes them on a slippery slope to ruin.
John Robison said…
Kim, I appreciate your confidence but I don't know how much of a leader I am when it comes to this. You're more an autism activist and leader than me. But I'll write my stories and hope they provide insight and inspiration and if people see that as leadership, that's OK.
John Robison said…
Anti-wife, you're gonna have to read the interview Library Journal magazine just did with me. THey asked those same questions and my answers were, to say the least, different from what they hear from 99% of the authors they interview.
Tyhitia Green said…
John, I'm glad you worte this post. I work with the mentally challenged, autistic, and related disability populations, and I love it. Being different is a good thing---who's to say what is truly deemed normal? I commend you for this great post! :*)
MaNiC MoMMy™ said…
I don't enjoy sitting in crowded stands watching grown men smack balls.

Some people do. Don't feel sad for me!

Great post!
Kanani said…
Yup, everyone has something different they like doing. And you just gotta go with it, right?

I can't imagine feeling sad for you.

Ha! John Robison does what's interesting... and that's not bad from what I've read from your book so far!
Stacy said…
Great post!

It's funny how most everyone longs to be normal and yet at the same time longs to be set apart from the crowd. It's like, "Sure, I want to be unique but only in socially acceptable ways." (Or at least, it's frequently true of me.)
Anonymous said…
"Normal" - statistically, it is the place where most data is located. But, how it is operationally defined can be seen as the difference between teachers who grade on a curve and those who don't. If you think the average is real, you search for it on a "normal curve". Those who think reality is best represented by the diversity of a population wouldn't have a problem with your behavior - it is one of many behaviors located on the continuum of reactions to a stressor. A much stronger reaction might have been to run amok, turning over tables, screaming incoherently. You left. Not a big deal.

Actually, in terms of the behavioral continuum, your leaving is a pretty middle-of-the-road reaction - but not if you need to explain behavior in terms of the "normal curve". Most adults would have stayed and been bored silly.

Who would ever want to be "normal", in the sense that it is only average? I don't know many "normal" people, nor have I ever personally yearned for normalcy since attaining adulthood.
Drama Mama said…
Thank you for this post. As an autism mom, I fight the whole projection thing with my kid all the freakin' time. I weep bitter tears while she remains a very cool and happy person.

I didn't feel sad for you; I thought your behavior was quite "normal", whatever "normal" means. You are not a person that I associate with helplessness or sadness or lack of anything.

And, truthfully, I'd like to wipe my ass with that DSM. I'm so over it.
Lili Marlene said…
I believe it's true that normal people generally aren't able to understand or imagine some of the more unusual (incorrect) pleasures that abnormals like myself enjoy.

If I were in a botanical garden I wouldn't be photographing plants, I'd be sniffing them. I only know of two other people who seem to gain as much pleasure from the sense of smell as I do. One is a person who I met by chance in real life, and the other is the author(Luca Turin) of a recent book about the chemistry of fragrance and his passion for perfume. One of my grandparents loved fragrance too, but they are long-gone. I guess there must be many more people like us, perfume collectors, rose breeders etc, but we're definitely not average in our interest.
Lili Marlene said…
I believe it's true that normal people generally aren't able to understand or imagine some of the more unusual (incorrect) pleasures that abnormals like myself enjoy.

If I were in a botanical garden I wouldn't be photographing plants, I'd be sniffing them. I only know of two other people who seem to gain as much pleasure from the sense of smell as I do. One is a person who I met by chance in real life, and the other is the author(Luca Turin) of a recent book about the chemistry of fragrance and his passion for perfume. One of my grandparents loved fragrance too, but they are long-gone. I guess there must be many more people like us, perfume collectors, rose breeders etc, but we're definitely not average in our interest.
Anonymous said…

I think that it is absolutely true that much of perception is really projection of our own views of reality. Although I believe that many of your readers interpreted your sadness from your title, "Defeated by Shakespeare." I'm glad that you wrote a part 2 and titled it, "Victory from Defeat." You have provided a more in depth context for us to understand your thought processes. Although I am bewildered in some ways, I am also relieved that you are not sad and “defeated”.

About this idea of projection:

It is nearly impossible to interpret any situation with complete objectivity without bringing some bias, some frame of reference, or past experience to it. The human condition that we all share is the need to create meaning or project meaningful patterns in our lives. The mind will find the simplest possible meaning to fit all of the facts. But many times when we are focusing our lenses we don't realize that we overlook relevant facts and miss the bigger picture. We tend to see things not necessarily as they are, but as we think that they ought to be. Our minds obsessive need for closure makes us create mental corrections on what we perceive. Oftentimes those paradigms that we bring to the situation just don't fit. Furthermore sometimes our past experiences distort our view of the situation. And as we mature we recognize that we have to formulate new paradigms and throw out the old boxes... Our brains are so very, very, different and we operate in a world where we have just a loose consensus of reality. (And yes, we all march to the beat of a different drummer.) Moreover, the act of perception is an active process of projecting meaning onto things. Creating order out of chaos...
Maddy said…
Thank you for that explanation. Very helpful.
Best wishes
The Anti-Wife said…
I look forward to reading your Library Journal interview. Are you going to post it - or a link?
Anonymous said…
i think one of the hardest things for me is to get, really *get* that everyone sees things differently. maybe it's more so for aspergians? that may be, i'm not one so what do i know? i mean, i *get* it intellectually but in the moment, in moments, i am guilty of projecting feelings onto my husband, child, friends, and family members, lamps, pots and pans, etc., so, yes, your point is well taken.
Tena Russ said…
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings, which are always so eloquently expressed.

That your are un-usual is your particular blessing. What creative person would say, "I'll have the usual, please, with an extra serving of the ordinary."

Here's to those who share your sense of "otherness" to one degree or another, and have gone on to become writers, artists, musicians, humanitarians, leaders, and inpirers.
Trish Ryan said…
Great point - God made us all so different. There are plenty of people to fill the seats at the Shakespeare play, and people who see the beauty of engines and know how to fix that funny clunking noise. In the body of humanity, some of us are elbows and others are kneecaps :)
AmandaT said…
Right on!!!
I for one love a Shakespeare play and a long stroll in a botanical garden about equally.

But don't even try to get me to stare at engine parts, let alone rebuild things with them all day long. That's an ability I know I'll never have. Staring at/rebuilding engine parts holds about as much appeal to me as having my gums scraped. My brain just doesn't work that way.

So John, I can certainly understand why you might feel uncomfortable at a Shakespeare play. I'd probably feel equally uncomfortable at your garage.

(I'm a playwright, by the way---and I take no offense to the fact that you'll probably never be interested in watching one of my plays).

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