Sometimes what seems like a punishment or hardship at the time turns out to be a gift. When my Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor, who had been a replacement at the last minute after I had gone to considerable trouble to enroll with someone mature, stable and competent, decided to play a little joke on me because “Unitarians live in their heads” and assigned me to the neurology ward, mostly brain injuries. He was really doing pay-back: he hoped I would fail. He WAS Unitarian himself and had had many go-rounds with an older UU minister who told him he was too much in his head. I was forty, about the same age as the supervisor was. He was still having nightmares about that older minister, who was a friend of mine. Just to make sure I was properly hazed, the supervisor slipped around to the nurses on the ward, inquiring how I was doing in a way that hinted they should keep an eye on me. I might be unstable myself.
It was ten weeks of hell in some ways. But it was also a great gift because I saw so many things, was involved in so many lives, raised so many questions that are essentially unanswerable, which is the point of CPE, There have been times, both before and since that ordeal, when my psychic resources have been pressed to zero and I was temporarily too blank to even qualify as a zombie. Any farther down and I’d have been flat unconscious. But I found that I was buoyant and though I’ve never ever been able to keep from sinking, I always come back up. This is an extremely valuable thing to know. It is also very valuable to know about others, so that you can sit down beside them and wait for them to resurface with some confidence that it will happen.
So now in course of chasing neurological research for my manuscript on liturgy as a way of guiding consciousness, I’m totally absorbed in this huge new galaxy of things known and unknown. My current book is by Antonio Damasio, a relatively older book (1999) called “The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness.” Damasio has focused on what is called “lesion research,” which means studying people who have brain damage, actually creating brain damage in experimental animals, and looking at brain damage in any way possible: fMRI, for example or cleverly devised tests.
So a very nice woman -- in fact, one who was a little TOO nice and wanted to hug and pat everyone -- turned out to have calcified amygdala, two little bits of brain in charge of fear. Since they were useless hard lumps, she simply had no fear. What’s wrong with that? you might ask. She functioned perfectly well, other than not being able to process fear. (She might have done a lot better than myself that wringer of a summer!) But she needed special protection in order not to be destroyed by things she SHOULD fear. Life is dangerous.
Damasio starts with homeostasis. Keeping the body on an even keel in service to survival. The function of the brain is to keep the body as close to a steady state as it can, inside the boundaries that will end life if crossed. Down in there somewhere thermostatic part of the brain is calculating whether you need more water, a little sleep, a good jolt of adrenaline, higher or lower blood pressure, and a host of things we don’t miss until they go wrong. The brain, through its outposts of neural monitors and sub-organs, constantly watches to see/feel/hear/taste/smell/etc all the things around the outside of the body and react to them properly. (Running like hell from danger is proper.) But also it watches (in the underconsciousness) all the maintenance tasks of breathing and so on, as well as controlling the interpretation mode, the emphasis when processing, the “attitude”. It does this with emotion.
Emotion is the second controlling concept that Damasio works to understand. (This is NOT usual.) He starts with “mood” and then goes “up” to emotion and finally to one’s awareness of one’s own emotion, which he calls “consciousness.” The two main valences of emotion are illustrated by a sea anemone: things that make one unfold and reach out into the environment (pleasure) versus things that make one withdraw and contract into a safe little knot (punishment).
This next is not in the book: I suggest that the WWII American generation tried not to have emotion or at least not to admit it. War heroes were the model. Stoicism was the prescription. Trauma was the result. Much of the trauma was passed on to those who could not defend themselves, didn’t know they should fear, like children. About 1970 we flipped over and tried to get everyone to tell everything. Throw off the restrictions, express yourself, abandon fear, love-sweet-love, why not? Things went wild. (Some of us really LIKED that!) So now, more carefully, we come again to see what we can see.
Start over: emotions -- both negative and positive -- underlie movement, change, progress. In this formulation desire and hunger are good things for individuals and societies. However rational the approach to the goals, emotion will be constantly part of the process, weighting choices, empowering strategies, providing pleasure at achievement. I’m only on page 88. More later.
This is not just knowledge for the sake of knowing. I figure that between five and ten percent of my friends and relatives have some sort of brain malfunction, if not outright lesions. (I’m counting autism, senile dementias, concussions, strokes, tumors, addictions. And myself, mildly.) In the past I have not understood what was going on or what possibly could be done. My CPE was in 1980 -- more than a third of a century has passed since then and we know far, far more. No more park-and-hope. Far more therapy. Subtle surgeries and meds.
But there are far more dangers as well. One is that we are NOT rethinking cultural and economic practices and assumptions that cause lousy intrauterine environments, then lousy EXTRAuterine environments, then schools that encourage games of concussion like football, then armies that produce traumatized and concussed young men, who then go home to young women who think having a baby will solve everything. What do we do when the lesion is in the culture? Well, I’m reading about that sort of thing as well.