“In the fairy tale, an incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition. A box is opened and all evils fly out. A word is forgotten and cities perish. A lamp is lit and love flies away. An apple is eaten and the hope of God is gone.” G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
I was asked once what I love, and this was qualified by, what to you is sacred?
There are relationships I consider so, but apart from human bonds? What is sacred? The answer for me is Story. For lifetimes I have depended on all forms of Story, real-life and imagined, though when a story is powerful enough, I think it resonates even more than something that quietly occurred in some little corner of the world. In the previous life I remember best, I avoided books for people, and only toward the end did I learn (remember) the power of fiction to help one escape from a horrible reality.
In this life, my idyllic childhood quickly gave way to a very tumultuous early adolescence, with my parents turning the house into a battleground that felt anything but safe. One therapist I used to see wasn’t sure whether I actually was autistic, but rather told me I had PTSD from my upbringing, it was that bad. I learned that engrossed in a book, no one could hurt me, because I did not exist. My self floated away and became only a consciousness absorbed in the comforting pages, where I could be other people or just a formless observer of quests to find a Grail, to destroy a ring, to appease a pantheon of terribly human gods.
While others my age moved from milestone to milestone, I read, and I hid, because neither the world outside nor the world at home was safe enough to budge from my cocoon. My old friends learned to drive, joined school clubs, practiced falling in love. A therapist told me that too much responsibility as a pre-teen sort of delayed me, so that I was having my teens in my twenties, and am now having my twenties in my thirties. I’ve come a long way, but the awe with which I view Story has never shaken. I seem to understand stories more easily, or maybe just differently, than other people I’ve encountered. Maybe because the world we live in makes some kind of sense to other people and not me, the trade is that a story tough for others to penetrate yields readily to me.
Chesterton, my favorite apologist, when examining belief observed that the strangeness of faerie tales is that in them an incomprehensible happiness rests on an incomprehensible condition. I don’t remember ever reading a faerie tale in which these “incomprehensibles” didn’t make sense to me. My favorite, which was featured on the TV series “Faerie Tale Theater,” was “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” or “The Boy Who Left Home to Learn About the Shivers.” A young man set apart from others because he’d never experienced fear is put in several situations that would terrify most men, and reacts to them with not only fearlessness, but puzzlement, as though amazed anyone would fear these things. Finally, he is challenged to spend a night in a haunted castle, for which he could win the hand of the king’s daughter, and that night, ghosts appear and play a bowling game using their own disembodied heads as balls. Far from being scared, the youth joins in and makes friends with them, and they are glad to have found a human who doesn’t run screaming from them.
An autistic sees him or herself in this story if exposed to it. I feel confident saying that. I grew up watching horror movies and reading monster books, puzzled when my friends had nightmares at sleepovers – what, you’re scared of that? My friends had the last laugh, because they are the norm. I can hunt for ghosts in a haunted place or watch a zombie movie right before bed, but I can’t drive, or have in-person friends, or do group-work at school. I’m supposed to have autistic pride, and one way I try to is to tell myself I enjoy stories more than anyone else I know can. I get absorbed in them, keep them in my memory, where a normal person would store rules of driving and friends’ cell numbers.
I know the power of stories, because sometimes they’ve kept me alive. They aren’t far-flung impossible tales to me, because I believe they’re all real in their own way. The incomprehensible condition makes perfect sense to me. Of course the evils of the world can be stored in poor Pandora’s box, because I believe such a box could exist. Of course Sleeping Beauty can be awakened by a kiss, because she was a child before her birthday, and after it ready to be “awakened” to knowledge of the opposite sex. Of course C.S. Lewis’s witch knew The Deplorable Word which could wipe out an entire civilization, because I know there is an almost frightening power that exists in words.
The youth won the hand of the princess, of course, but still was plagued by never having so much as shuddered. His clever wife dumped a bucket of cold water on him, and he proclaimed that he at least knew how to shiver now, though fear would forever elude him. Crippled by anxieties as I’ve been, is it any wonder that this would evoke in me longing?