Some time ago, I saw a documentary on the Jonestown Massacre and recall hearing a survivor say that he decided to travel to Guyana against his better judgement because he thought that living on the agricultural compound would mold him into a better person, and help him become overcome the shortcomings that he perceived to be present in his life. While Jonestown is an extreme example, I think this general sentiment of putting one’s hope in an outside organization or guru-type figure to help “straighten one out” is common, and is one reason why so many people are attracted to groups, religious or otherwise, that are categorized as “high demand.” In the context of Catholicism, I think that the rigors of monastic life or what I call “high demand lay spirituality” can be attractive for people who are suffering from some kind of mental illness or emotional imbalance.
Sometimes, during my more melancholy moments, I feel like I “failed at religion,” much in the same way I failed at basketball when I was in seventh grade. My inability to continue in religion certainly wasn’t from lack of trying; I went to the most “traditional” parish in the archdiocese (at least until I got blackballed), prayed the rosary every day, did Louis de Monfort’s “Consecration to Jesus through Mary,” read about theology, liturgy, apologetic, and the saints, etc. But in the end, it still wasn’t enough, because nothing I did could resolve the doubts I had accumulated. I had hoped that “finding religion” would help solve some of my existential crises, as well as my ever-present anxiety and depression, but I soon discovered that adding theology to the mix not only gave me new things to be anxious/depressed about.
This is another unpublished essay that I thought needed to see the light of day, rather than be hidden away on my hard drive. It’s not about religion in the institutional sense, but about various aspects of Southern identity, which tends to function as a civic religion anyway. This essay goes with my previous posts on Southern Agrarianism and racism, but tackles the issue from a more personal perspective and includes a few suggestions for future action.
If you haven’t been able to read between the lines thus far, I’m just going to explicitly state right now that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Some skeptics seem to think that Asperger’s is a “trendy diagnosis,” especially when you have so many people doing the self-diagnosis thing. However, having Asperger’s Syndrome is only “trendy” if you’re someone like Bill Gates, who is already rich and famous, so any “quirks” can be immediately translated into a sign of genius. Girls and women with Asperger’s Syndrome or who are elsewhere on the autistic spectrum are practically invisible in our discourse. Many people have some clue as to what can be done about a geeky autistic boy who liked computers and math, whereas a geeky autistic girl who can name every post-War of the Roses British monarch and likes to learn Latin (like me) is always going to be an oddity.
Every since I can remember, I’ve felt different for a variety of reasons. When I was a child, I desperately wanted the kinds of friends who lived next door, with whom I could spend hours immersed in play and imagination. Suffice to say, that never happened, one of the main reasons being that I lived about thirty minutes away from all of my schoolmates. In those days, there was a program called “Minority to Majority” in my city that enabled black children to attend public schools in other districts. When my brother and I entered middle school, we both switched to private schools, both of which were also 30-45 minutes away from our home. This allowed my brother and I to take advantage of the best schools imaginable, but we were effectively cut off from the black community. Even today, when black people in Atlanta want to suss you out, they ask you your church and what high school you attended. When I say, “I don’t go to church” combined with the name of the obscure white private school I went to, I might as well be announcing that I was raised by Martians. While my brother was popular and well-liked by people of all races, the opposite was true for me, and I ended up going further and further inside myself. Bereft of real, human interactions, I spend most of my time reading obsessively and daydreaming obsessively. The key word in all of this is “obsessive.”
After I left St F, I drifted for a while. I would go to this parish or that parish, but my indoctrination about “liturgical abuses” and the dangers of going to “heterodox” parishes, filled me with anxiety as I tried to de-transition to “normal churches.” I finally just tried to break free with the whole Catholic thing by going to a Mennonite church for awhile. I don’t have anything negative to say about my time with the Mennonites, because they were honestly the nicest people I had (or have) ever met. The problem was me, because I was still obsessed with theology, liturgy, and all of the other things that led to a nasty case of religious OCD. Like most forms of OCD, I just couldn’t win; when I was at a church that seemed to fulfill all the aspects of my “spiritual checklist” like St. F, I felt inadequate and sinful for not doing this, that, or the other, or because I could never get behind the “women shouldn’t wear pants” thing or the MLK hate, but when I went to a more spiritually “normal” church, I felt like I was still failing at something or possibly everything.