Tonight I went to a women's event at church. One of the things that my church does is every so often they share a short video of someone in the congregation talking about their life. Tonight the video that was played was mine. Earlier in the week I was filmed and interviewed and tonight I saw the bits of what I said in the interview which were edited together to make a 2 or 3 minute "my story" video.
The gist of what made it into the final video was about how I spent a lot of time not being sure in my identity before being diagnosed with Asperger's as an adult and that it took me a while to process but I ultimately decided that my response had to either reject a part of myself or accept autism as part of who I am and just trust God. I also talked about how it can be really difficult for me to connect with people at church sometimes but I find being part of the worship and really being open in that and singing from the heart helps me feel connected to God and like I'm sharing with and part of the church community.
I didn't get to talk to a whole lot of people after the service because I was helping with supper but people were reasonably encouraging. Several people said they had learnt something from it and one told me that I was brave to share that and gave me a hug. Now some people may question whether that could be patronising, but I choose to see the intent behind people's actions and their desire to be encouraging rather than the particular words they choose to express that. I don't particularly feel brave or intimidated by doing this sort of thing, but I guess for most people sharing something publicly is a lot more scary than initiating a private conversation and confusing something about yourself and who you are to a friend.
This all leads me to reflect on how lite happens in the context of relationship, so struggling with making and maintaining relationships can make feeling part of a Church community pretty tricky. I go to a very friendly and welcoming Church, but friendships don't happen magically or instantly and how accepted I feel within the context of the Sunday service or a Church event doesn't necessarily translate into the rest of the week. Not because of anything anyone has done of failed to do but simply as a result of various realities and circumstances. There are a whole lot of reasons why people with disabilities are underrepresented in the church but describing those adequately would more closely resemble a thesis than a blog post so I won't go into detail about that topic here.
When I was younger a lot of the things I would pray about and ask God for were related to my relationships and connectedness. I wanted to feel like I belonged to a community of peers where I was accepted for and free to be myself. I wanted to have people to hang out with by chatting over coffee or seeing a movie. I didn't just pray about these things either. Over time I've spent, and will continue to spend, a lot of time trying to evaluate and grow and learn how to be a kind, generous and trustworthy person and build and maintain good and healthy friendships. I've tried to as much as I can remove any barriers which might lead to me appearing distant or being misunderstood. I don't want to change who I am in order to make people accept me, I believe that who you are is sacred and is a gift that should be treasured, but I do think its reasonable to learn new skills and make small changes which help people see who you really are. I've been pretty hard on myself at times, done silly things to try and impress people and I have made mistakes and failed more times that I can count.
For the purpose of this post I'm going to define the friends as people who I talk to regularly and hang out with socially every so often. I don't want to upset anybody by saying I don't feel I have many close friends that I can hang out with and rely on, particularly locally to where I live. I want to be clear that I do realise that it is completely normal and healthy to have different levels of friendship and acquaintance. You don't hang out with or share your deep dark secrets with anyone and everyone. I also want to be clear that I appreciate all the people who are intentional about saying hello, asking if I have someone to sit next to, including me in things, offering me a lift home, or sharing a short conversation with me on a Sunday morning at Church, at the supermarket or in the hallway at work. But in the end, relationships are difficult for me and the net result of this is that I can get pretty lonely and isolated. I wholeheartedly believe the Church is a family, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't sometimes feel like the strange cousin that people hope they don't get seated next to at family weddings.
To be known, you need the space, freedom and understanding to be yourself. Trying to keep up with conversations and be careful about what you say and how you say it so that people don't misunderstand or take offence is not easy and can make it hard for people to really get to know me. I am still learning how to be a good friend and how friendships work and are created in the first place. Realistically I think this is a journey that all of us are on to some extent at lease. Relationships require wisdom, patience, generosity and a bunch of other character traits that grow through challenges and over time. I try to be fair and patient in this as well as being grateful for what I do have and all the amazing people I have the privilege to know even if it is quite often only at a distance. Some of the things that make this difficult are things that I could or am improving in over time. Others are out of my control, and I need to be able to accept and live with that regardless of whether other people understand or not . As much as I want strong, close friendships and people to spend time with I want it to be healthy, authentic and mutually beneficial for all and sometimes that means that what I want may not be something I'm fully equipped to handle quite yet.
To be fair there are lots of reasons I may not be the easiest person to connect with. People find it difficult to tell when I am joking, I find it hard to initiate and find appropriate gaps in conversations, I can be clingy without meaning to or take longer than others to realise that someone is bored or doesn't want to talk to me. I also don't drive which can create a practical barrier. Asking for and accepting help is not a strong point of mine. Sometimes I get so concerned about making a mistake and upsetting someone that I don't even try to connect. I know that I've put in a lot of work and made a lot of progress over the years, but I don't necessarily know people over a long enough period for them to see my heart for growth and really appreciate how hard I have worked and how far I have come. I just have to trust that God sees my heart and my intentions and doesn't judge me on how well or badly I read body language or phrase something.
"In the end, everything will be okay. If it's not okay, it's not yet the end." Fernando Sabino