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The Heart of Life

The Heart of Life: March 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011


An article in The New Yorker told of a man who attended a conference in which a certain neuroscientist spoke about the brain.  This neuroscientist described humans as beings almost completely controlled by the neural wiring, brain chemistry, and genes within our brains.  "The scientist described human beings as creatures driven by deep mechanisms, almost like puppets on strings, not as ensouled human beings capable of running their own lives."

However, at the conclusion of the scientist's lecture he was asked how this knowledge of the human brain had changed his life.  He gave a surprising answer--this knowledge had caused him to join a folk dance company.  He explained:

"I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends.  Now, though, I see things differently.  I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources.  The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics.  The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture.  The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education.  But it is all information that flows through us.  The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river.  Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it. ... I've come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks.  It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool.  It happens sometimes while you're playing sports, or listening to music or or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God's love.  I've come to think that happiness isn't really produced by conscious accomplishments.  Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities.  Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year."

In my studies, my classmates and I are constantly reminded that no man is an island.  The systems theory explains that every person has a countless number of connections to systems outside themselves.  I have connections with each member of my family, with each roommate and friend I've ever had, with the leaders in my religion, with the people I know from high school, with my professors, with the people from my hometown, with the people I've worked with, and with countless other people.  I even have connections to people who have no connection to me, such as Oprah, J.K. Rowling, and President Obama.  It doesn't matter how much I actually interact with these connections I have formed or if I interact with them at all; it is still a connection, and I have millions--perhaps billions--of them.  And each of these connections makes up a part, no matter how small, of who I am and what I do.  If something good or bad happens to any one of these connections, I am affected, whether I like it or not.  The only way to break these connections is for me to completely forget that the connection ever existed.  We are all inherently connected to people.

Another theory I've learned about that goes right along with the systems theory is the ecological theory.  The idea behind this theory is that human beings have a very intimate two-way relationship with various levels of their environment.  The first level is the person's family and friends, the second level is the community (this includes things like school, work, and church), the third level is institutions (such as the government or economy), and the fourth level is the person's culture and that culture's values.  Not only does the person constantly influence and manipulate each of these levels of his or her environment, these levels also influence and manipulate the person.  It is impossible to completely separate the person from his or her environment because while the environment is influencing the person, the person is simultaneously influencing the environment.

All of this--the connections and environmental relationships--simply happens without us making the slightest conscious effort to make it happen.  It's not something we can learn or forget; our brains do it naturally.

With that in mind, I consider man's true role in choosing his or her own fate.  I have come in contact with many children whose parents chose to do drugs.  I think when this behavior first occurred, the parents felt they could contain the effects of the drugs to only themselves.  I think they truly believed that no harm would come to their children because of it.  I think they believed that doing drugs would not change their connections or their environment.  And yet, everything did change.  Drugs impaired their ability to care for and interact with their children.  They could not contain their drug use to only the first level of their environment and eventually the other levels of their environment noticed what was happening.  Most significantly, the legal system noticed.  The parents entered the legal system, and the children entered the child welfare system.  The parents found themselves in jail, and the children found themselves in foster homes.  The parents choice to use drugs not only completely changed their own environment, but it also completely changed the environment of those they were most closely connected to--their children.  I do not think this is what the parents had in mind when they first began using drugs.  I do not think that they thought to themselves, "I choose to use drugs, hurt everyone connected to me, and completely change my life."

We have the ability to make a number of choices.  But we must not disregard what these choices will do to the connections we have naturally formed, for we have no control over that.  As the neuroscientist asserted, every choice we make should nurture those deep, love-filled connections we've formed and immerse ourselves in activities we are passionate about, for this feeds the very core of our being.  In doing so, we subconsciously create a place in our minds where we can be completely and entirely filled with joy.


Friday, March 18, 2011


A few weeks ago I was brainstorming for slightly out-of-the-box analogies to use in my part of a group presentation.  It was an emotionally-charged topic that pointed toward prevention, and I wanted to find a way to take the emotion out of it and show how the logical answer also pointed toward prevention.  As I was brainstorming, I recalled an experience I'd had less than a week earlier.

My car was long overdue for an oil change, so I took it in to get it serviced.  Afterward, the mechanic came to me and told me that an important belt on my car looked like it needed to be replaced--it was getting weathered. He suggested I do it soon, as my car would be essentially useless should this belt break.

Being a thrifty, college-aged woman, I decided it would be wise to get a second opinion.  I know nothing about belts and did not want to be swindled by this smooth-talking mechanic.  Luckily, I was going home two days later and decided to have my dad look at it.  When my dad looked at it, he couldn't see anything wrong with it.

I was left with a difficult decision:  To replace the belt, or not to replace the belt?

I thought about what might happen if I left it.  If it broke, I could be stranded alone somewhere.  I might find myself unable to get to my classes or my internship.  If it broke while I was driving, it could potentially leave me in a very unsafe position on the road.  Or I might get lucky and it might not break.  No matter how you cut it, leaving the belt was a gamble, and I'd never be completely confident that my car was going to run as planned.

I thought about what would happen if I replaced it.  It would be slightly inconvenient.  And dishing out money for something that isn't broken yet is always hard, especially when it's potentially unnecessary.  However, once the deed was done, I wouldn't need to worry about the belt anymore.  I would know that my belt was good and I could trust my car to get me where I need to go.

It was the perfect analogy for my part in the presentation.  Much like the child welfare dilemma we were debating, in this situation neither option was very appealing, but one choice was definitely the most safe, and that was prevention.  If you can see that something has the potential to be a problem, it's always best to prevent the problem rather than repair the damage.

It is always interesting to consider the things I do in my life in the name of prevention.  We used to have a mouse problem in my apartment, and thus I try to keep my kitchen counters and floors crumb-free in hopes of preventing the mice from coming back.  I lock the doors of my car and apartment in order to prevent theft.  I could omit either of these practices from my life and probably still be fine.  Maybe the mice don't care what my kitchen counters and floors look like.  The city I live in has been dubbed one of the safest metropolitan areas in the United States--it is unlikely that I will ever have a problem with theft, regardless of whether or not I lock my car or apartment.  And yet, it's not a risk I want to take.  In matters of mice or robbery, I am not willing to take a chance.

In my presentation I emphatically asserted that the obvious solution to the problem with my belt was prevention.  There was no pain-free solution, but replacing the belt was always the safest solution.  But for whatever reason, that belt is still there on my car--a potential ticking time bomb.  I'm not sure how this belt is any less serious than an impending mouse invasion in my apartment or a greedy stranger extracting the stereo out of my car, but here I am--waiting.  Waiting for it to become something real to fix.  Waiting for it to become a problem I can actually see and wrap my head around.

We live in a very remedial society.  If something isn't broken, we don't try to fix it.  We wait for someone to overstep boundaries before we correct that person.  We wait for illnesses to become serious before we begin to find the right remedy.  We wait for a child to demonstrate obvious signs of abuse or neglect before contacting child protective services.  We wait until we are overweight before we worry about eating healthy foods.

We spend a lot of time waiting for something that will set us in motion.  We stand there just waiting for the next ugly problem to jump out and terrify us.  We wait to be attacked by a problem before we attempt to fight it.  There is a song by the band Switchfoot that asks a very valid question, "This is your life--are you who you want to be?"  It's a question I try to ask myself frequently.  Do my actions make me the person I want to be?  Do I keep my mind locked and clean in order to prevent unwanted guests?  Do I ensure that the belts of my mind are always shiny and new or wait for the weathered belts to break?  Do I define my problems and attack them, or do I wait for my problems to attack and define me?  Am I making my life what I want it to be, or am I waiting for something else to happen?


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

St. Valentine

Every year at the dead center of February we celebrate a very interesting holiday.  This holiday was historically in honor of several martyrs by the name of Valentine who lived sometime around 200 A.D.  Some time later February 14th (the date one of the Valentines was buried) was recognized by the Catholic church as Saint Valentine's Day.  In 1969 the Roman Catholic church pulled St. Valentine's Day off the official church calender, explaining that in all honesty, the church knew nothing of the life of the man known as Valentine except his burial date.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't until the 14th century that the feast of Saint Valentine was even remotely connected with love and courtship.  The origins of  how St. Valentine's Day became associated with love are vague and highly debatable.  Some say it was rooted in Greek celebrations of Zeus and Hera's marriage celebrated around the same time of year.  Others link it to Lupercalia, a Roman fertility celebration.  Nobody really knows for sure.  What all can agree on is that Valentine's Day has snowballed into what some would refer to as, "a pretty big deal."

When I was in elementary school Valentine's Day meant going to the grocery store with my mom and picking out a box of Looney Tunes Valentine cards.  It meant spending a school night copying my classmates' names onto each card, signing my own name, and then taping the classic heart-shaped suckers on the back (the kind that left a white heart on your tongue if you carefully kept it there long enough).  It meant digging through my own Valentine's bag or box for the best candy, glancing at the name for a brief moment of inward thanks, and then thoughtlessly discarding the card.

In junior high and high school, Valentine's Day was filled with happy girls smugly toting around small flower arrangements and helium balloons that loudly declared, "I love you!"  On those days, the main office appeared to have been taken over by a whole fleet of balloons and a forest of flowers.  Those who were expecting something and got nothing pretended not to care.  Those who received an unexpected token of affection from an unnamed someone spent the rest of the day nervously watching for smiles or winks that might unveil the masked admirer.

In college, Valentine's Day has a different meaning.  Those who are dating someone look on it favorably.  Men flock to flower shops to get something for their girlfriends or wives.  Men and women alike stress over what they can get for that special someone to show that they love and care about them.  Those who aren't dating someone refer to it as "Singles Awareness Day."  Some people ignore the holiday, while some have Anti-Valentine's Day celebrations or girls-only tea parties.

I've never cared much about Valentine's Day.  The balloons, conversation heart candies, and stuffed animals never have seemed too romantic to me.  But on Valentine's Day this year I heard my doorbell as I was making myself breakfast.  I glanced out my window to see who it was and was pleasantly surprised to see my favorite guy sprinting from my doorstep to his car.  I let him drive away and then opened my door.  He'd left some roses on my doorstep.  I smiled and picked them up.  The sound of a car idling in the driveway drew my attention to my neighbors who were watching from their van; they were smiling too.

I don't know how Saint Valentine would have felt had he seen what his namesake holiday would evolve into.  Maybe he would like it, or maybe he wouldn't.  But I have a feeling that if Saint Valentine had been there with me, he would have smiled as well.