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Ritual: The Underlying Logic of Our Neuro-Typical World

Updated on September 28, 2014

Ritual is an important part of our culture. The religious or spiritual aspects of ritual are part of this, of course, but ritual is also much more than what we do when we worship. From a certain perspective, you could say that ritual pervades every part of daily life. If you make a special gesture to ward off bad luck, or wear a special piece of jewelry, or a lucky article of clothing, then you participate in ritual. In fact, I would even argue that ritualized behavior is a dimension of any action or thought that is automatic and routinized, a set of motions that a person goes through each day simply because that’s how things are done.

Cleaning Under the Couch

A hundred years ago, the Russian writer Tolstoy described ritual in the following manner: He was cleaning his room, going through the familiar motions of moving the couch and sweeping, when he suddenly realized that he had no recollection of what he had been doing. Had he already cleaned under the couch or not? There was no way of knowing unless he checked, because his movements around the room had habituated into a routine that required no reflection at all.

Tolstoy was clearly getting at something essential about daily life that many of us have given some consideration: Day-to-day life requires some kind of routine in order to function smoothly, but at a certain point that routine seems to take over in a deadening monotony rather than simply helping us get through the day.

Now imagine that you found it very difficult to get into Tolstoy’s predicament with the cleaning. Imagine that you had to be mostly conscious of your actions most of the time, and that you even had an aversion to any kind of repeated action that you didn’t have a specific reason for committing. That’s what it’s like for me as an adult on the autism spectrum.

For me, life on the spectrum has the blessing and the curse of always being new. I have to think my way through each day, and I have very few automatic behaviors that I can rely on. This is especially challenging with all of the little social rituals that are expected in typical daily interaction. Knowing when to shake hands, look someone in the eye, say goodbye or thanks are all uncertainties for me that require concentration. This makes spending time with most people (anyone except my closest friends) very tiring, because I have to pay attention to everything in order avoid making false steps and outing myself.

The Phatic Dimension of Culture

I have found that Neuro-Typical people generally do not connect these important social rituals to the broader concept of religious and ceremonial patterns of behavior. However, if you stand outside of the repeated behaviors of social interaction -- as I often do – then you can easily recognize the ritualized hand gestures, facial expressions, and patterns of conversation that go into the automatic process of normative social intercourse. For example, when I was younger I didn’t understand that for NTs a conversation is supposed to end gradually; it wasn’t about the information that was shared so much as what linguists call the phatic element of speech, the non-informational component that conveys the sense of emotional correspondence. Because I don’t understand (or see the reason for) phatic speech, I would finish what I had to say, and rudely turn around and walk away.

This led to a number of situations that in retrospect were kind of comic: I must have seemed like some kind of alien in graduate school, abruptly coming into a room, saying something, and coming to what I thought was a reasonable conclusion to the matter at hand, and then just as abruptly leaving. But at the time, I really hurt the feelings of the people who were expecting me to go through the normalized rituals of phatic speech, in which I would say hi, ask them how they were doing, pretend to commiserate about something, and then work my way into the topic I really wanted to discuss; ending the conversation, I was supposed to say something nice, smile, and make insincere promises to hang out soon, or maybe complain about how busy I was. I wasn’t ever busy or overburdened with work, however, because I would leave all of these phatic elements out of the conversation, saving myself hours of time each day, even while I was unwittingly causing real damage to my relationships with colleagues and potential friends.

If I could go back in time and sit down with these people in order to ask them for reasons for this phatic speech, I doubt they would have responses that I could understand: phatic speech is precisely the communicative element that doesn’t need a reason. It is just what is done, and unfortunately for people on the spectrum, there are tangible punishments for not obeying these rituals. In contrast, I have always felt comfortable in a therapeutic setting, where participants are expected to be self-conscious about their communicative process. For me, this is daily life, because I can’t turn on that automatic behavior. In individual and group therapeutic contexts, I see others struggle against relinquishing this automatic attitude. There is palpable resentment toward this therapeutic scrutiny of ritualized comportment. I’m sympathetic to those struggles and frustrations: it is a mirror image of what I experience, but for me the therapy room or the group meeting is a small oasis in the midst of a world of phatic expectations.

Learning Curves and the Plateau

The phatic rituals of social interaction are just one of the aspects of this capacity for repeated, unreflective behavior in a Neuro-Typical world. The vast majority of jobs require a great deal of automated behavior. Part of the reason I completed my PhD was my deep discomfort with any job – even your average white-color profession – that requires unreflectively repeated behaviors. This may sound judgmental, but I certainly don’t mean it that way. When I describe what I mean to friends, I talk about it this way: Think of learning as an upward curve, and the point at which you stop learning as a straight line. In the US, we require most people to go through a fairly rigorous upward curve of learning and gathering new experiences when they are young, but we also measure the success of a career mainly by the flat line of repeated actions. This issue is so common in NT culture that we have names like the “Peter Principle” to describe the endemic problems that come about as a result.

Everything from our vast trucking industry to high-level corporate management faces the issue of the learning curve. The ability to cope with the shortcomings of the plateau is one of the defining traits of being “normal.” As far as I can tell, the NT person can automate enough behaviors to allow for continuous distractions, almost as though they leave their bodies to keep doing the necessary activity while they think about other things or amuse themselves with unrelated activities. For me, it’s all or nothing; I have to concentrate completely on each task, and my interest is completely absorbed in whatever I’m doing. This allows me to read a complex book in a noisy café, or follow thorny problems through to their conclusion, but it also means that I can’t multitask well, or repeat behaviors once I have climbed the learning curve to a plateau. One of the defining traits of a PhD is an expert who can endlessly new problems to him or herself; in other words, someone whose profession is described by an insistent refusal to plateau. That’s a more comfortable way for a high-functioning AS person to live, because it minimizes our exposure to this dicey world of ritual.

In my next entry, I’ll talk about what for me is the opposite of ritual: linearity.

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