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Why I DON’T need a hobby.


My wife’s sister thinks I need a hobby – something to distract me from my tangled mental meanderings in the virtual public arena of Facebook. She says so – frequently! I have explained to her, that I can’t have a hobby, but it’s difficult for ‘normal‘ people to understand why that’s the case. So I’m going to try to explain why, in the hope that I might not only enlighten her, but give others a little bit of a window into some of the seemingly inexplicable things that have characterised my almost sixty years on this earth. A kind of ‘personal testimony.‘

But let me begin by telling you about one of my favourite television programmes. A gentle English comedy set in a beautiful area of Cornwall, the ITV drama Doc Martin is a story about a clever local GP called Martin Ellingham. Martin is obsessed with his work – a diagnostic genius, who once was a highly regarded London surgeon until his fear of blood overcame him and ruined his surgical career.

Played by Martin Clunes, Ellingham has all the characteristics of someone with undiagnosed Aspergers Syndrome, and he plays the part really well, and I should know, after all I played it myself for over fifty years. Martin is totally dedicated to his work and seemingly can’t ‘turn off and relax.‘ Martin appears to be ‘rude’ and aloof, even disconnected, to people who seek friendship with him; he finds expressing his feelings almost impossible, can’t make friends easily. People call him ‘grumpy’ and say he ‘can’t relate to people.’

The ‘love interest’ in the series (every drama has to have one) is the local primary school teacher, Louisa Glasson. (Played by Caroline Catz) Martin would very much like to have have a deeper friendship with her, but can’t seem to find the words to make that relationship happen, even though its obvious to everyone else that she’s crazy about him.

In one classic episode Martin and Louisa have finally managed to get a few moments together for a quiet meal, when a loud knock at the door announces the arrival of Louisa’s new next door neighbours – a psychologist and his wife and their behaviourally challenged son. Loud is an understatement. They barge into the house, wine bottle in hand, claiming they’ve lost their corkscrew and intent on spending the evening with their new ‘friends’. Martin panics. Like most ‘Aspies,’ loud and ‘in your face’ people scare the living daylights out of him. Two’s company, three’s a crowd, four’s a nightmare and and more than that… So Martin makes his excuses and beats a hurried retreat, and the over-bearing psychologist catches on. Perhaps Martin has Aspergers, and thus may well be a potential subject for his latest book, a potential that is never realised, as Martin verbally ejects him from the surgery.

Now, back to the subject, – Martin doesn’t do hobbies. He doesn’t want a dog to walk (unfortunate for the poor dog, who wants nothing more than to be Martins’ loyal companion) or the friendship of the chatty local policeman, or to buy a boat and enjoy the calm waters of Port Wenn. To him, these things would have no point. Everything an Aspie does he does with complete dedication, to the Nth degree, and he does it night and day, or he doesn’t do it at all. It’s a typical behaviour pattern of anyone who has Aspergers or High Functioning Autism.

In my own experience, any dalliance with anything remotely resembling a hobby has been detrimental. At high school I started to learn to play the clarinet. I became obsessed with music. I attended the Belfast School of Music and took the RCM exams. I played with the City of Belfast Youth Band, Grosvenor Hall Military Band, and many other ensembles. When I should have been studying geography or history or maths, I was down in the music store-room, rearranging the sheet music, or practising, or talking with my musical colleagues. It distracted me from other vital academic studies at school which would have helped me to secure an earlier entry to further academic studies at university level.

This has continued right throughout life, too many times to catalogue. Any interest must have a purpose, or it takes on a purpose of its own, and becomes a distraction from what really matters.

In ministry terms, the best example of this occurred around 2004. I was the minister of Albert Bridge Congregational Church at the time, and someone told me that I needed a hobby; something ‘recreational’ to help me relax and unwind. I settled on photography. I’d had an interest in photography back in the 1980’s, and had learned all the theory, and taken some remarkable photographs, – but the interest had waned back then, for taking photographs just for the sake of making nice images is, to the Aspie mind, totally pointless. Empathetic appreciation of beauty is not in and of itself a purposeful activity. The detailing of technical image-capture data is much more attractive, the shutter speed and f-stop and ISO settings, the depth of field, and the laws of reciprocity, – those are the issues that excite the Aspie photographer. (In my experience). So the interest being pointless, couldn’t be sustained.

But by the middle of the first decade of this century, things had changed a lot in the world of photography. Digital had happened, and suddenly there could be a point to the discipline. It became attractive, for it could now easily provide images for our Christian bookshop supply ministry – Photographs could be used to carry Christian messages, in framed prints, in fridge magnets, on greeting cards… There was a purpose! I invested in a small digital camera and the obsession began.

Within a few years, I had a professionally equipped photographic studio, was photographing around forty weddings a year, offering photographic services to commercial clients, had studied photography at a local college, and obtained a Higher National Diploma, (had specialised in the history of photography during the Great Depression in America, – I was required to write a 3,000 word essay on the subject – I could have written a 20,000 word dissertation, I was so obsessed with the subject), passed the modules with distinction, held the Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society, watched many web seminars and studied on-line tutorials, read countless books on photographic history and technique, spent hours in a darkroom. And this was my HOBBY.

But, bear in mind I’m a workaholic. In my twenties I had three jobs at the same time. So I did all of the above on a part-time basis, – all my free time and all my days off were filled with photography, – but you can imagine the effect it had on my real work; God’s work, the work that really matters, preaching and ministering to God’s people. The hours I devoted to the work didn’t lessen, – but I was distracted. My sermon quality dropped, for when I should have been allowing sermon ideas and theological truth to run around my brain, – I was ruminating on exposure values and fill-flash techniques. My photographic work had to be advertised, and that antagonised those who were rightfully expecting my full attention, who thought I may well be neglecting my duties. I wasn’t. I was still visiting the sick, making house calls, preparing services and sermons, attending to various other duties, sitting on committees and boards, – still just as active, but (and this is crucial) with much less enthusiasm and drive. Obsessions are always distractions.

And if I wasn’t neglecting my pastoral work, what of my wife and family? All those hours spent pursuing my photography obsession were hours that I wasn’t spending with them, and they deserved better.

So, why do I NOT need a hobby? Quite simply, because I can’t engage my mind with pointless amusements. If I found some pursuit that was purposeful, and immersed myself in it, I would become so obsessed with it that everything else would suffer, especially my wife, who has willingly and patiently stood by me, throughout 35 years of marriage lovingly enduring all sorts of obsessive traits, sudden house moves, career shifts, autistic melt-downs and irrational behaviour.

My obsessions always end, eventually; usually when the damage has been done. I love photography, and I use it to support my ministry – for it too is a God given gift that I can use to bless others but I no longer do wedding photography, and having achieved a high academic standard in my photographic studies, there’s nothing more for me to achieve, and the ‘pursuit’ – the relentless quest for achievement has gone, the obsession is over, and the new level of competition in the industry was a good excuse to move on, and I’ve got a bit of my life back, at least my spiritual enthusiasm and love of the Scriptures, – even though my church circumstances are dramatically different.

So don’t tell me I need a hobby. PLEASE. I’ve had enough, and my wife needs a break. I want to spend the last five years of my working life before retirement devoting my life to teaching God’s Word, and pointing people to Christ, and showing my wife some love and attention, not starting a new business or enrolling on yet another degree course.

One final point. Properly directed, the Aspergers characteristic of total obsession and dedication to an interest is of immense value to mankind. Google for ‘Aspies who changed the world.’ People like Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates. See the contribution they have made, and be glad they didn’t just take up a hobby!

From → Editorial

One Comment
  1. I realize I,m commenting rather late, but this sums up my feelings perfectly. I’m coming to realize I’ll never make any money with my hobby of photography, and that’s making me think of giving it up. I simply don’t see any reason to do it purely for the enjoyment. And that’s weird, because I’ve never been happier than with a DSLR in my hands. But I cannot understand why I should try to perfect the skill if it’s not for the purpose of earning money. It is so late in my life that it simply isn’t likely to happen, and I feel like I’m wasting time pursuing it as a hobby.

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