Editor’s Note: Also available on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/BajaBreeze#!/pages/Autism-Dad/160327080653310
I never took a philosophy course in college. Back then, my great philosophical inquiry was, “Who’s buying the next round?” So it may surprise you that recently I began investigating the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. I don’t know what prompted this journey or what answers I was hoping to find.
At one point I took a pen and carefully underlined a four-word sentence that was ridiculously and deliciously provocative.
Hell is other people.
It’s from Sartre’s play No Exit and, I found later, among his most notable and quotable lines.
It appears to say that our interactions with other people are invariably hellish, but this is actually a misreading. Here he is in his own words:
My self-confidence, my sense that I really exist, depends on my intentions being received by others. But that can happen only if those others are real for me; I can exist only if I recognize others. So there’s always a tension, an on-going contradiction we have to live with, between our need to assert ourselves as individuals and our need to belong to the community in which we can be recognized as individuals. Growing up is a matter of learning to balance these two imperative needs: asserting one’s own will and recognizing the will of others.
Hell is the awareness that we depend on Other People to validate our own existence. Hell is the burden of Other People who watch us, judge us, shape us, and define us. It reminds me of something I wrote in Zoning Out:
I want to believe that Ben’s limitations are also liberating: to turn on or off as he pleases, to simply ignore that which doesn’t interest him, to not feel burdened by the need for approval and affirmation or by the pressure to follow the herd.
To my surprise, reading Sartre helped me in my journey to better understand Ben, his mind and his consciousness. It was like connecting the dots. From Sartre I hopped over to the Theory of Mind, a concept I had only a vague understanding of. Here’s what I learned:
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. (Source: Wikipedia)
Many kids with autism are said to have theory of mind deficits. It’s why I get over-the-top excited when Ben attempts humor or shows empathy for a crying baby. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about bullying, and how to address it. It’s a particularly worrisome situation when the boy has autism. I wish I could shield Ben from the sometimes cruel world that he, sooner rather than later, will encounter. I worry about the hell that awaits him: the stranger who judges him, the kid who teases him, the bully who badgers him. I hope, like the vegetables I tried to serve him last night, that Ben simply ignores them. Here the Theory of Mind deficit becomes an advantage. Tune out the bullies like the background noise they are, sort of the way my grandma turned down her hearing aide if you bored her. Like I said, limitations can be liberating.
It all depends on your perspective.