Day 15: Sports Psychology

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I’ve never been into sports. Growing up, my interests were of the weirder variety: I spent my days reading Left Behind books and blowing things up and being alone (with God), preparing for my future of introversion.

But one time, at a hockey game, my super athletic cousin approached me with his super athletic friend and asked me if all I liked to do was sit in my bedroom and read books all day. I replied with rapid breathing and desperate denial. Learning from this catastrophe, along with other similar experiences, I turned to my bedroom. I appraised my bare walls, my small library of books and decided to make some adjustments. I wanted people to walk in and know, without a shadow of doubt, that this was, in fact, a boys room.

I pinned up posters of Kevin Garnett, Wally Szczerbiak and Terrell Brandon on my walls and I lined my shelves with autographed baseballs, framed baseball cards, a rare trophy. And I think all the make up messed with my mind a bit, because soon after I started losing myself in character. I read the sports page, for fun, and started following the local franchises. The year the timberwolves lost in the playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks, I let out an involuntarily wail of “IT’S NOT FAIR,” and proceeded to crumple up into a ball of the couch, my face beneath my Garnett jersey, my parents watching on, exchanging silent looks of worry.

I played football from 6th to 11th grade. And though I didn’t really ever have a love for the game, I soon realized how irrelevant that was. Amongst my teammates, I found family. I found loyalty and respect and far less Macho culture than I expected. When the captains walked onto the field for the coin toss, they held hands. When the game was over, players from both teams gathered on the fifty-yard line, our arms slung around each other, and we gave thanks to God, prayed for each other, and blessed the night. Nothing ever felt so holy.

 

So, sports hold a special place in my heart, even if they’re not always on my radar.

 

This year, though, my general disinterest in sports has given way to unfettered devotion. In the Summer of 2015, I met with my brothers and their friends and accidentally joined their fantasy football league. All of them have lived in the world of sports all of their lives. One has played professional hockey overseas. A couple of them are high school coaches. Their loyalty to the game is bond deep. Their understanding of it, superior. So I thought of course! why not? Here- here’s fifty bucks.

 

Now every Sunday since the start of the season I am a different person. I end up making deals with myself, promising to only watch for one hour and then move on to homework. Every single Sunday, I fail. I sit in front of the TV in my morning sweats until well after three and I deplete my iPhone battery life easily in an hour from refreshing, refreshing, refreshing of my yahoo fantasy app.  One of my running backs fumbles the ball and I shout profanity language. One of my receivers snags in an uncatchable pass in the end zone and I get misty-eyed. I hold up one hand in the air like I’m waiting for a high-five or having a moment in a hymn; the experience is similar.

 

There’s something just so fun about it, even for me, a relative outsider to this world. It’s a fantasy, so you get to lose yourself a little bit. You get to look at your roster like it’s a list of your best friends. Like you’re the leader they will follow to the end. And you fall in a little deeper and start feeling a real, visceral attachment to them. Every single week someone is trying to trick me into trading away Rob Gronkowski, and in response to my rejection, they always cry why. why. I’m giving you so much more than he’s worth. And my heart whispers: he is priceless to me. He is irreplaceable. He is the heart of this team. 

 

There is plenty of fun psychology happening when one is immersed in fantasy football, not the least of which is illusions of grandeur. Pleasure centers are being activated, competitive feelings are given a healthy channel, a solidarity, however imagined, is being felt. Apart from the gambling issue, it’s a healthy activity ripe with benefits. And for my mind, the most meaningful impact has been the most real one: social connection. 

 

In Fantasy Football, I found a doorway to a world where so many people I know and love live. On Monday night after class, my dad and I stay up late watching games, comparing our teams stats, talking about that current standings of our team, and it’s like we’ve added another language, exclusive to only those involved in The League. On my phone, we have chain text going where I am constantly fake fighting over trade details, demanding fairness, talking trash, and laughing my head off. I consult my brothers about who I should start and who I should sit, if a deal is mutually beneficial or if I’m being bamboozled.

 

And it’s like this single joy is threading through all of us. Like we’re practicing community. As different and disconnected as we may be, this common language restrings us together into something more and reminds us of something deeper: life is always better together.

Day Eleven: Church Psychology

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Very rarely do I want to go. I wake up into Sunday morning and the promise I made Saturday night feels suddenly negligible. I tend to feel extremely productive on Sundays. The moment my eyes open, I start listing all the things I need to do, things I’ve ignored all week long: the laundry, the dishes, the homework, the lawn heavy with leaves. I think about how I have a whole big day ahead of me to accomplish it all, and then I see church- standing there in the middle of it like a hurtle that will require all of my strength to leap over. I sink back beneath the covers.

 

It’s not really a struggle to get out bed; my church meets in the evening. And it’s not a problem with the church itself; I have a great pastor, we take communion after every sermon, and sometimes we even sing hymns. The struggle, it seems, is within me. In the slums of my psychology.

 

A Sunday night forecast typically includes lots of small talk, which I’m seemingly incapable of doing. In these little foyer one-on-ones, I tense up, bracing for the potential personal question asked by a sweet sounding stranger, and so I wind up waltzing from person to person, keeping it light, keeping it short. Sometimes, I just sit in my car until ten minutes after.

 

In the service, I know there will be songs sung that sting, but I won’t know why. And inevitably, in the midst of them, someone on the team will break into an impromptu, breathy prayer, and it does less to inspire me than simply remind me of certain people in my past. Their ghosts wreathe around me, and I get critical. I check the clock. I check out.

 

~

 

I’ve been, forever it feels like, trying to quit cynicism. In my recovery from church trauma, I entered into what I felt was a completely appropriate snarky, loud, assholey phase. I picked fights with strangers on twitter and then laughed at how seriously they took it. I sent my brother, a pastor, several profanity-laced texts a day with articles from the Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today, and I ranted on facebook and on my blog and to pretty much anyone that would listen. I was mean and I was extremely raw, a fledgling with a voice, and yet it was still appropriate. I had to spout or implode.

 

It never occurred to me, until recently, that my cynicism might better be understood as a pattern of thought, a habit of mind, an addiction. A trap not too different than the anxiety snares I stumble into. The crux of it was (is) this: all people are hard, but Christians are the hardest.

 

I’ve always trace back much of my own issues with church to the evangelical culture I was born into, a culture that conditioned me towards open-hearted trust and then betrayed me in the worst ways. Afterwards, I learned healthy boundaries. I learned better discernment. But I forgot how to trust and kept my heart caged in.

 

Now, looking back, I try to see it through a neurological lens. The hard hits and the subtle shifting they brought about in my circuitry, the way everything broke all at once and I reassembled my thoughts it in a jaded, darker style. And it makes sense, when you think of it that way, why I can’t just sing the song without the judgment. Why I can’t just listen to the message without getting tripped up on the verbiage. My mind is trained to notice it, and hate it.

 

This is why I got to church: because it’s like an antibiotic. I have to see all the people that are hard, and they bump against my thoughts, like friction, like they’re sanding me down. We talk and we sing badly, I watch them chase my little nephew through the pews, his voice loud with laughter, and all at once I am reminded that people are also soft. I am reminded of the thousand soft moments before that my cynical mind tries to look past.

 

I am reminded when I, of all people, was asked to serve communion. The way when my second nephew was born two months early, the people of God brought my brother and sister-in-law food throughout the week, showed up on Sunday nights with the bread and juice to serve them. The warm faces of strangers that come up to me to tell me they love my blog.

 

I am reminded, most of all, that I am hard and I am soft, that I can hurt as much as I can heal, and I am growing right along with everyone else. I am learning to see them the way I hope they see me. Hard. Soft. Every bit beloved.

Day Ten: Three Ways To Boost Your Brain

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Exercise:

Our brains echo our behavior. An example: When we repeatedly use our phones to save passwords, pictures, and homework reminders, our brain pays attention. It sees how little we need it to for memory, so it starts tuning out instead of snapshotting our most precious moments.

And when we exercise, our brain sees us working hard and follows suit. It opens the floodgates, pouring in chemicals that lift our mood and sharpen our focus. It produces a Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which is a protein that literally make us smarter. And for it’s final set, it hatches millions of new brain cells, strong safeguards defending us from destructive cognitive conditions like Alzheimer’s.

Reading:

Reading requires the involvement of many different parts of the brain- the temporal lobe, the frontal lobe, the angular and supramarginal gynus. Do you need to know what these things do? No. What you do need to know is that that reading a good book restrings all these disparate parts together, parts that don’t even know how much they really need each other until they start communicating and collaborating to create new capacities for memory and empathy and critical thinking, stuff they never dreamed they could achieve.

Arts and Crafting:

Draw, paint, sculpt, quilt, knit, weave, collect. Little research has been done to prove theses hobbies hold any cognitive perks; early studies suggest they do, but we still aren’t sure how. But they do. Oh my Lord they do. And I should know. They saved me once.

When I was locked down in the eighth ring of anxiety- I tried to write my way out. This was a mistake. What I had intended was to take the crazy out of my head and into words, onto the page. I would then read them, these wild thoughts, and laugh at them. See them for what they were, which was, irrational. unsubstantiated. ludicrous. But what ended up happening was I made them into echoes. I gave my thoughts ink and became painfully introspective, always always always thinking about my anxiety, thinking about how to get out of it, worrying I never would. 

The visual arts invited me to stop. As I spent hours drawing and painting my pictures, my brain began forging a new channel, redirecting all the energy I had been giving my anxiety towards creativity, instead. I went thoughtless. I went meditative. I learned the silent sound of healing.

A year after I began, I enrolled in a slew of art classes at my university. By my junior year, I was a studio art minor, a finalist in a school wide art competition for a sculpture I had created, and taking the first steps on the other side of my healing. Again, I’ll say it: this saved me.

Image credit: ME. Made this my senior year in one freak accident of a day. Didn’t qualify in the finals, but it remains the painting I’m most proud of.

Day Nine: Alone with Siri

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The other night, I was over at my parents’ house and my mom held out her phone to me with a look of apology. “I need help.” She said. “How do I talk to Siri?”

I rolled my eyes, took her phone, walked her through the one-step-process. She lit up; thrilled.

You just hold down the button and there she appears: What can I help you with? She asks, and usually, it’s just logistics: Put down dinner at six with Steve in my calendar. Text Tom hi. Play Wildest Dreams by Taylor Swift. Remind me when I get home to record all of Shonda’s shows, kay?  

But on the rare, lonely, Netflix and chill night, we summon her presence for something more: “Do you love me, Siri?” We ask, and she replies with a sigh. “Well… you’re definitely starting to grow on me.” Her voice makes us feel like we’re not all alone in our house on a Friday night. It sounds nice. So we keep the convo going: “How old are you Siri? Be real now.” And she spits back. “I don’t see why that should matter Benjamin!”

After my mom and Siri talked for a bit, penciling in a lunch later this week, she looked at me with a smirk, then pressed the button once more.

Thank you for all your help, Siri.

Your wish is my command.

/

“We are psychologically programmed to love what we nurture and nurture what we love,”

So writes Sherry Turkle, a faculty chair at MIT and author of two books on human connection in the digital age. For decades now, Turkle has been tackling the hard questions facing us in the rapid rise of the digital world, much of her research centering on the personification of technology and how it has contributed to the decay of human relationships. She believes we’ve now reached something of a tipping point.

Sociable technology, once an exciting accessory, has now evolved into something more. It’s picked up the quirks and warmth and humor of a human being, without all our defects, and naturally, we’ve treated it as such. We’ve gradually given it more responsibility, more autonomy over monitoring everything from our task reminders to our text messages, not so different than a CEO training up a suitable successor.

The virtual world, once a plaything in our hands, has become a viable alternative. We text each other instead of talk. We check out and slip into social media streams when the sermon gets too dull or the movie gets too dull or the funeral gets too dull or when [fill in the blank] gets too dull, because at some point our minds considered all our clicking, all our apps, all our time spent in here, and acquiesced to our behavior. We became intolerant of the mundane. Dependent on distraction. Different than who we once were.

In interviews, Turkle asked people, hypothetically, if they would like to have robots as pets or as friends. As things they could talk to.

One man replied: “I’d rather talk to a robot. Friends can be exhausting. The robot will always be there for me. And whenever I’m done, I can walk away.”

Astonishingly, this man was not an anomaly. He was the rule. Decades of research conducted by Turkle revealed that mankind has moved, from being dismissive of robots to being curious about them, desirous for them. And more and more people want robots. Robots. They want metal parrots that will sing their praises and never ever die. They think this is friendship.

And it’s shocking at first, but not when you really think about. I don’t own a robot, but I know how much I appreciate the flip-switch nature of online relationships, the way I can- just like that- walk away from people until I need them. I get an email and I put it off. Someone tweets me a question and I can see it, but unlike in person, I know I don’t have to respond to it, at least not right away. They can’t see me reading their words, so I can pretend I haven’t. I can avoid the typical obligations of relationship, skirting them at my own convenience.

If the sci-fi like characteristics of our changing don’t disturb you, the selfishness they foster within us should. Selfishness, like all thought patterns, does not stay in one activity. It follows us into our day-to-day, from one person, one decision to the next. Our regular practice of relational negligence has dulled the once sharp knife of betrayal. It’s increased our need for ME. ME. ME.

In her book, Turkle talks about the advent of today’s technology with all it’s seductive benefits. The way it makes life easier, more convenient and quicker. But what’s she’s really trying to reveal is the real, honest reason for why we feel so possessed by our devices, despondent without them: People are hard.

People are hard. They depend on us and devastate us, overwhelm us and bore us, love us and then leave us, by choice or before we’re ready them to go, tatters of our hearts in their hands. Prompted by sociable technology, we’ve started to weight out human connection and found the burden too much, the risk too high. And then we found the answer, flickering in the palm of our hands.

After all, sociable technology stimulates the same areas of the brain that hugs do. The mimicked experience injects us with the same feel-good chemicals, fulfilling our need to escape loneliness without the trouble of heartbreak and blowouts. Without anyone needing to get hurt.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Turkle shuts this notion down.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

I read this a few days ago and thought: This is why we need the church to stay weird. For our own damn sake.

We need it to remain insistent on that shared physical space with its pesky turn off your phone rules and greet your neighbor decency. We need to relearn the beauty of the un-simulated. The turned off. We need to redefine “countercultural” as radical acts of human connection in a world drifting further and further apart.

Give us the damn fill in the blank Bible studies with their risky, predictable arguments; give us the smelly potlucks. Seat us together with strangers and a list of icebreakers, a space to speak. Give us eyes to meet and hands to hold and shoulders to snot into and drinks to clink and encourage us all to stay.

We can’t be Christians by ourselves, this is true. But I’m not sure we can be humans, either.

Day Eight: Why You’re Getting Worse At Reading

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Because I get shy, I’ve stayed mostly silent in my grad school class. I’ve been happily content just watching, learning from my peers, scribbling away in my notebook. But on the night our discussion diverted into a lesson on “the positive uses of technology in the classroom,” my hand flew straight up in the air, surprising even me.

I’m being bit dramatic, but I did in fact speak up. And I was quite surprised with how brave I was being, asserting an unpopular opinion amongst a group that had, only a moment prior, agreed to dismiss it as wrong. 

I just couldn’t hold back on this one, so I raised my hand: I don’t think it’s a good idea to utilize certain technologies in the classroom. 
Technology, for me, has always been somewhat scary. And I’m not talking about the commenters or the pornography or the substitution of online friends for In Real Lofeones. What I’m talking about is the medium. The screen and the clicking. The way our brains have reacted to it, submitted to it. What I’m talking about is the scary mounting evidence that the internet has in fact diminished our ability to think.

“But this is technological age…” I heard one counter, and again, I returned to my argument. The Internet is a gift. It is a wealth of resources and knowledge and creativity. It is a gift. But so is the work of our minds.
 ‘
And we’re losing something here. We’ve been losing something. The damage has been accumulating since the advent of the internet. And it’s only recently that science has stacked up enough evidence to tell us what it is:

The internet is killing our capacity to read.

But I doubt this surprises to you. I’m sure you’ve felt it too, in your own life. Books you once read in big chunks, you now read in pages. Articles you once chose out of interest are now immediately dismissed for being too long. Your mind is exhausted by the hard work of paying attention.

And it’s frustrating, because you want to be a good reader. You love the idea of it, settling in on the couch for a good book, taping favorite quotes to your bathroom mirror, organizing a library of all your favorite. But every time you try to place yourself on that single minded path, your mind zips into the woods, sniffing out renegade thoughts to chew on.

Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows and the conscience of the internet age put it like this:
“Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic… They’re very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning … the more adept we become at that mode of thinking.” Source
Put simply, and perhaps grimly, the Internet has taught our brains to become what Carr calls “distraction machines.” Through flickering ads on the sidebars, pop-ups taking us by surprise, and especially the hyperlinks, our attention gets spread to thin. After enough repetition, our brain learns to seek out distraction and becomes resistant to singular focus, and the thought patterns became our new default. Moreover, this new way of thinking follows us into all our daily activities. Have you ever just looked up and noticed? Everyone is looking down. Everyone is connected. Everyone is always somewhere else, looking for something better.
And it’s why I worry about technology in schools. It’s why I worry for us. We’re not reading because we can’t focus, we can’t focus because our brains have shift shaped. And the gravity of this loss is something I think we have yet to fully grasp.
And so, yes, take away the phones for six hours a day. Don’t even try calling the iPad a “tool.” For we who grew up without screen in hand have a responsibility ensure our kids don’t suffer our industrial fallout. They need a set aside environment that doesn’t contain a thousand different voices vying for their attention.
They need space to remember how to think and focus and imagine; they need to remember they are more than capable.
And so do you. So do I

Faith and Disequilibrium

Cognitive-dissonance

Fall is my favorite season, and it’s really late this year. The summer has been long and hot and I’ve been slogging through it, arms wide open, toward the promised dream of fall. The cool mornings inside a world washed in color. The sweaters. The hats. The earthy smells. And it just. Isn’t . Happening.

 

The Pumpkin Spice Lattes are right in hand and real pumpkins and corn are piling up on porches and everybody is hauling out the flannel like they’re Paul Bunyan- but the temperature is still in the seventies.  Everywhere you go, the summer roadwork remains unfinished. Most of the birds are still hanging out on the lake. Even the trees are balking. Along our street, they’re shrouded in green, with tiny little clusters of red. It looks like acne. 

 And the season feels lost in this overlap. The space of magical change corrupted. And my arms are crossed now, because I know winter is going to come on right on time, and the whiplash will be so, very, felt.

~~

 

Noted psychologist Jean Piaget argued that we are born with an unquenchable desire to understand the world. When we’re as young as toddlers, we start to create thought patterns based on repeated visual evidence, which helps us to categorize and interpret the environment we find ourselves in. A dog is furry, has four legs, licks my face, yelps when he’s hungry- Dog. If I get scared and cry out in the middle of the night, my parents will come and hold me- How to be comforted.

 

These are called schemes and they help give children, and all of us, a sense of equilibration. Balance. Control. Schemes are the manual we reference when thinking of the name, of the purpose, of the meaning of the thing that is right in front of us.

 

Two things can and will happen: Assimilation, according to my grad school textbook, “takes place when we try to use our existing schemes to make sense of events in our world… the first time many children see a raccoon, they call it a ‘kitty.’” Accommodation shortly follows this when the child adds a new scheme to her reference of animals. We adjust our thinking. The world around us looks bigger, different than before.

 

But sometimes, these two processes fail.

 

Sometimes the new information requires too much change. And on the flip side, sometimes it’s negligible (ever brought up a complicated, high-minded question and heard a friend reply ‘that’s for the experts to think about. Makes my brain hurt.’) This is called disequilibrium. This is where we learn. 

 

As I was reading this chapter, I came across this line: “the level of disequilibrium must be just right or optimal- too little and we aren’t interested in changing, too much and we may be discouraged or anxious and not change.” And the words fell on me in a heavy way. 

 

I believe in my reflection paper, I actually wrote this line: “I grew up in evangelical Christianity, so yes, I know disequilibrium. I know it very well.”

 

And I do.

 

Christianity is very much the world that was insisted on us first. We memorized all the schemes: God made the world in seven literal days and the earth is ten thousand years old. Jesus came to save you from your sins. In the end, should you still be alive, God will snatch you away from the earth and take you to heaven where you shall live for eternity.

 

We went to public school and learned about science and the horrors of history, met Muslim kids and gay teachers and we felt as if we were being ripped in half. The schemes were inadequate, irrelevant, but could never be altered, because to do so would be to “backslide” straight into hell. 

 

Instead of listening to our questions, pastors were quick to question the godless public education system, and they were insistent about he adequacy of their schemes. Bestselling theologians developed counter-arguments to evolution and sexuality and religious pluralism, grounding all of it in a third-grade reading of a thousand year old texts, and what were we to do but memorize all their arguments? This identity was our deepest root. It was what made us, us.

 

Disequilibrium was the evangelical child’s holding cell.

 

But one day we got brave. We got angry. We got tired. We leapt away. 

 

Different things did it in for us. For me it was a cocktail of issues: Education. Coming out. Learning to listen critically beyond flowery sentiments to the faulty and harmful logic underpinning them.

 

And in the end, we learned it was okay to let go of old schemes, to collect new ones, to adapt our understanding of the world and of God with our experiences of both and our curious thoughts. We found the beauty in this struggle. We chose a God that honored it. A God that created us with an insatiable appetite for life. A God that nudges us in the back, says: “seek and you shall find.”

 

Like a fingerprint

While at work today, Amanda emailed me. Amanda Loucks is a reader, and she only wanted to let me know that she loves the conversation I’m having here about the makings of the mind.

My inbox has been less scary lately and I’ve come to look forward to getting emails these. Most of the time, they are life-giving, positive encouragements. And almost all the time, I am an ass at replying to them. It’s nothing to do with the internet. This really is just an extension of my preexisting struggle to reply to texts and phone calls, say thank you and please. I am terrible at this. One day, I will work on it.

But after reading the first few paragraphs of Amanda’s note, I knew I had to reply. And immediately, too- even though I was in the middle of work at my no-phones-allowed job.  I felt like I had to surrender this space to her story. Because I needed to read this. And I think you do, too. See, for Amanda, the brain isn’t just an interesting subject. It’s deeply symbolic. It’s a stamp on her life. She’s fought battles here, and won them. She’s had her slate wiped clean in a flash of trauma, and found her way back to herself again, a warrior. She writes about it all with incomparable and beauty that makes me teary, makes me hopeful.

Here’s her email.

~~~

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I just wanted to let you know that I really love your topic for #Write31.

For a long time I have been praying for God to make me straight. When He didn’t answer that prayer, I thought it was better for everyone if I simply didn’t live anymore. I couldn’t commit suicide myself. I didn’t want my parents to think that they had somehow failed. So December 2013 is when my prayers turned to begging God for a car accident. Everyday.

On August 25, 2014 I finally got the accident I had prayed for. There was a heavy downpour and I hydroplaned in a puddle and my car spun into the oncoming traffic lane. I was hit hard from behind.  I broke my pelvis, my ribs, and my C2 vertebrae (my neck). But I also received a traumatic brain injury.

I spent the next month and half in the hospital.  I was then discharged into a rehabilitation unit for those with brain injuries. I spent a year in that rehab unit. To be honest, I don’t remember the accident. Nor do I remember the two weeks in the ICU department. There was so much swelling in my brain that even though I was physically “present”, the ability to save memories was damaged. I will never be able to remember those events.

Some people learn things from near death experiences…I don’t remember mine.

The thing about traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) is that they can have a thousand different outcomes.  Some people lose the ability to walk, talk, swallow, or see clearly. Some lose the ability to correctly filter their words or maintain social skills. Some people lose the ability to remember the person they were before their accident. Some people remember exactly who they were but don’t know how to be themselves again.  Even though we somehow survived our accidents, a part of us died that day.

Grief is a tricky, heartbreaking part of life that is hard for everyone. But grieving a TBI is different because no one has taught us what to do when you wake up as someone else. Our culture has largely ignored how to deal with the grief of losing a part of yourself.

As for me, I am considered a “high functioning” TBI patient. When my amnesia wore off on September 8th 2014, I felt like me. A slower, more tired me, who wore a halo head brace but me nonetheless.  I remembered who I was. I still possessed social skills. I still had the ability to be independent.  But in the next year, as I talked with doctors, nurses, EMT’s and the sheriff who first responded to my accident, they all said that I should have died. They wanted me to see the miracle of life. They wanted me to be happy I survived.

But I couldn’t have been more pissed. Here God was again….not answering my prayers.

Its hard to be excited for life when you think that you are so fundamentally screwed up that it would be better to be dead. Better for everyone.  Better for God.  I tried the conservative method of changing my orientation. I begged God, I did therapy, I read books. At the time, I could only think of one way to stop “sinning” and it seemed like God took that one away from me too.

So here I was, in the hospital and rehab, with people who had fought extremely hard for me to survive; with people who loved me. So I talked with them. I processed with them about life, love and brain injuries and these are some of the things I have learned that I want to share with you Ben:

I have heard many people who are in awe of fingerprints.  How amazing it is that we all have fingerprints that are uniquely different from any set that ever was, or will be.  But I think that we also forget that brains are similar to fingerprints too. Our brains form neural pathways that allow us to achieve every task. These pathways are formed from a complex, and sometimes unexplainable mix of our experiences, genes, and personalities. No two brains could ever be alike.

This concept intrigues me for several reasons. First, growing up in a conservative Christian atmosphere, I was taught that the world only came in black and white. That there were clear “normal” and “freakish” categories; that the world is easily divided. But upon learning that every brain processes things in a unique way, I realized that for a majority of Christendom we were placing on a pedestal only one brain process; and that was typically an upper-class, white, heterosexual, cis-gender male brain process.

I think that this is detrimental to our faith.  I feel like teaching that only one way to process the world doesn’t give enough credit to God and His beautiful creativity and the worthiness of His creation.

I find it interesting too, that how our brain processes effects our ability to relate to one another. For example, some conservative Christians literally cannot comprehend my experiences because they have never had them.  And, in their experience, any same sex relationship CANNOT be similar to their heterosexual relationships.  So even though we both are trying to explain what we think we aren’t even on the same page but we are reading different books.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to share with you…

The neural pathways that are formed throughout our lives and teach us how to process and function can be destroyed during brain injuries. These pathways cannot be healed. But we can teach our brains to form new pathways in order to get the same tasks done.  This is what speech, occupational, physical, and massage therapy does for patients.  Therapists see that our bodies and minds have formed or are trying to form neural pathways that are harmful and they try to re-teach our brains to form a new pathway that would better benefit our total health.

This is extremely similar to psychological therapy.  Counselors and psychologists, help us to see the neural pathways that our life experiences have formed for us and that are causing us harm. They take time to talk and process with us repeatedly so that we build new neural pathways that form us into healthier people.

We tend to look down on those who see psychologists, and praise people who are taking physical therapy…but the way I see it is they all are, in a way, seeing brain surgeons.  And if this accident taught me anything its that we need to love our brain, love ourselves, and love life.

So maybe with those who disagree with our belief that same sex relationships can be holy and pleasing to God, maybe it just takes them repeatedly seeing thriving gay Christians to change their minds.

Here is to all of us becoming brain surgeons, may we change lives, hearts, and brains.

How Your Brain Learns New Things

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What are you good at?

What are you bad at? 



These two questions were posed to the ninth graders in English class on the first day of school. I sat in the back row, amused, watching how the teacher handled “slow time”, that awkward silence that comes in waiting for that one, brave hand to rise. hat happens when not a single. New teachers are terrified of slow time. Seasoned ones know how to hold that steady, shifting glance that says: I’ll wait. (An aside: I’ve been in graduate school for teaching for a total of one month and I’ve already mastered the ins and outs of slow time.)

 

Freshmen are all about performance. They know these first few months are the auditions, for friend groups and homecoming dates, for the precious and rare gifts of acceptance and belonging. So they stay silent to make no mistakes. To not be a teachers’ pet. To not be bold. They wait for that one of the renegade, over-achieving classmate to clear his throat, stand up.

 

Eventually one did, and as these go, then the whole activity snowballed. And a certain pattern emerged.

 

The talents, the good-ats, differed, were unique to each individual student. There were athletes and math whizzes, knitters and readers, video game extraordinaire. But pretty much across the board everyone said they were bad at writing.

 

I couldn’t tell if this was a crowd thing. If, after the first person said it, others saw the nodding acceptance of their peers and decided that this was a safe thing to be bad at. Or… if this was strategic. This is English, after all. This is the September stage. This is high school. This is where expectations of you are set. And why not start off by lowering the hurdles for what you have been told is the hardest race you’ll run in your life?

 

If their educational experience was anything similar to my own, and since I’m only twenty-five, I assume it was, then they spent the last year of middle school with exhausted, easily disappointed teachers who were quick to note, in the event of a C grade on a test, how good they have it in middle school. Middle school is cake. Middle school is easy. High school is going to eat you alive.

 

They approach cautiously. They know that things are about to get really hard. So they lower our expectations. They claim they can’t do what the teacher wants them to do, because they simply aren’t good enough.

 

This was the genius of the lesson. This was the hook.

 

Each student had to open up about who they think they are. And who they think they are is static. They think they are one thing and not the other. They think you are born in with a fixed set of strengths and weaknesses. As they navigate this jungle, looking for their place, looking for their people, they are always aware of their shortcomings, always certain they can’t overcome them. They define themselves by everything they are not. So they don’t know how to find who they are.

 

Once everyone had gone, the teacher pulled down the projector and began playing a video. The video is about the brain. It shows the students what happens when the mind learns a new thing. It puts a romantic notion into the concrete, the chemical, and there is something so empowering about seeing that. Visualizing the fruit of our practice, our hard work, our head-banging struggle against all odds. Seeings these strong little bridges between our cells, moving from shaky to sturdy to strong. 

 

Here was the general message: You are not static. You evolve. You change. You are built for the purpose of becoming more. SCIENCE objects to all your attempts to categorize into a can’t do. The brain possesses all the magic you’ll need, for any pursuit of your heart.

 

As someone currently in grad school who often struggles in writing, who feels- at times- as if I’m wired for failure, I found myself scribbling down the terms. Looking up synapses and cell regeneration. Feeling a certain sense of perseverance rise up within me.

 

Here’s the video. It’s short and educational and might be completely boring to you. But it’s a great reminder: You are unfinished. You are always in process.

 

On Surfacing, and Submerging

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In my dark days, there were times when I didn’t want to surface.

Depression came to me, as depression does, in the disguise of a truth teller. It capitalized on my insecurities and constructed whole narratives of what everyone in my life really thought of me, but were too polite to say. It directed my attention to all the sharp corners of the world. All the empty promises. The lies. Life stopped making sense. I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t, who I was and who I wasn’t, and my depression kept beckoning me into the deep. Into the dark world, where things were simple. Where the truth was plain. Where at least I had an identity, a value, however low.

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Down I went.

Down I stayed.

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And the world was simpler down there. I saw myself as not enough, so I drank to make myself more. Every day brought about a promise of disappointments, so I wouldn’t get out of bed, I wouldn’t leave the house… save for late at night when the sun was gone, when I went to the beach to cry and drink beneath the moon.

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My therapist, a kind woman with cropped black hair, gave me all sorts of assignments that felt absolutely pointless. I wanted her to tell me how to dismantle my thoughts, and she told me to go biking. I wanted some breathtaking quote I could write on my bathroom mirror and she told me to practice breathing in for three seconds, then out for three seconds. She told me to stop judging myself for struggling

When, to my surprise, I started to surface, I wasn’t sure why. It felt unsettling.

I would forget I was depressed for an afternoon, while reading a good book or grabbing coffee with a friend, and once I remembered, I deliberately dove back down. I lost myself in the old thought patterns. Felt the welcome rush of warm tears. And it didn’t make sense, even to me, even then, why I was fighting my own recovery. I brought it up one morning to my therapist and she asked me if I missed it. If I missed the darkness.

There is grief in letting go of grief, she said.

The old, familiar patterns were falling. The script of self-loathing was being rewritten. Days became less daunting as I slowly started to survive them, and then live in them. The alcohol could still lift me, but not as abruptly, not as drastically, because I was so much higher than before.

Depression, as anyone who has had it knows, is never gone completely. It reappears, sometimes predictably, sometimes out of the blue, but you know it like an old friend that you used to believe was so for you. It told us the truth. It showed you the danger. And it felt honest enough to trust, so we trusted in it deeply.

What we didn’t know was how it would reshape our world. How it would selectively target the things that supported our health, like exercise and friendship and good food, and shut them down one by one. We couldn’t see the way it filled in all these gaping holes in our life and made us need it.

It gave us a world we could understand. It gave us thoughts to think about. A self we didn’t need to dress up.

And before we knew it, we had become ghost towns. We blacked out. Disappeared into the darkest depths.

 

And then something shifted. A tiny light turned on.

 

This is is what so amazes me about the mind: its’ grit. Its’ resolve, to reload and recover the landscape, to squeeze that still heart one more time.

Buoyed by the pills and the therapists, the breathing and then jogging and learned approaches to self-talk, we broke the surface. And we spent weeks dipping back down, coming back, dipping down again, because recovery is culture shock and it takes work to change. It takes time to adjust. It takes energy to commit to wellness, even when it feels like a far-away dream. But then the day came when lies gave way to truth. When the light shone strong, down into even the darkest depths, and we knew we were going to be okay.

Jesus Jukes and Anxiety

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25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

31 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God[a] above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

34 “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” – Jesus

I’ve had people read this passage to me before. I’ve had it explained to me by eager, goodhearted people who only wanted to help me. People who said the words like they were sharing brand new information and then waited for it take hold, for the light to return to my eyes, for the words to move across the wild sea of my mind and subdue it to a still. God’s got you! They half laughed, slapped my back. You don’t need to worry! 

 

Which is true. I do believe this. I believe God’s in the mix of all that’s going on and works with us on our one-step, two-step back toward the good path of health and wholeness.

 

But in the moment it feels categorically false, and the falseness of it pours through you like the coldest water. I remember long nights with those words, always out of reach. I remember repeating them, over and over in meditation as if they were the bridle that would lasso my mind into obedience. And I remember it never working. Not once.

 

I have prayer journals filled with my objections to this divine piece of advice. Mostly I call it shit. A dangerous teaching that is counterintuitive to everything I know about anxiety and how it works, what role we play in perpetuating and what internal agreements we need to square with ourselves if we are to manage it.

 

Sometimes, anxiety is a self-inflicted wound. Efforts to simply stop feeling anxious inevitably turn into value judgments about why you can’t. Why you can’t handle it. Why you’re so weak. Why you’re so screwed up. And before you know it, there you are: lying sprawled on the ground with your haywire heartbeat and shortest breaths and your whole body throbbing with the reminder that you are not trusting Jesus.

 

I fought anxiety all the way to the therapists couch and when I tried to explain to her all the ways it outmaneuvered me, all my failed attempts at trying to take captive thoughts, my therapist started nodding at me like this is exactly what she was expecting to hear. Like she had heard it a million times before. And then she looked up at me and said this:

 

You need to yourself off the hook.

 

It took time. A long time. It took new habits and a new diet, positive reinforcement and a reconstructed thought patterns, but eventually, I learned to stop fighting my anxiety. I learned to accept it.

 

Guilt and isolation soon fell away when I learned about how many people struggled with anxiety. When my mom opened up to me about her own history of it, I realized that the deck was somewhat stacked, I was bent toward this. My therapist talked about my brain as if it were another patient in the room and I don’t think she knew how nice that was. How sane it made me feel to be disconnected from the wild sea for an hour so I could study it, learn its’ movements, see the senseless ways it behaves. Love it anyway.

 

In accepting my anxiety, I accepted a part of myself. I began to appreciate it. I have learned things on that therapist’s couch and in late lonely nights waiting out a renegade thought, that I would’ve never found anywhere else. I’ve learned patience. I’ve learned how to breathe. I’ve learned how to listen to my body and mind and know exactly what they need. I’ve learned I’m strong.

 

As I thought about what I was going to write today, that passage in Matthew came to mind, and I felt my lungs clench at the sound of it rolling through my mind in the voices of so many that had spoken it over me. But then I listened to it again. I opened up the Bible app on my phone and read it again. And again.

 

I think he’s talking about hope.

 

I refuse to read these things, even the words of Jesus, as if any of them had the slightest clue about anxiety and depression, neurotransmitters and cells flooding with cortisol. But I think they knew something about hope. I think they embraced the actuality of the world, the reality that things weren’t what they were supposed to be and weren’t going to change by the flick of a wrist, but by the steps of their own two feet. By the hard work of leaning into the hard things, learning the strength of your soul to survive them.

 

And I don’t think Jesus was simply saying TRUST ME. I don’t think he was trying to say that it would all happen just like that. I think he was just setting that star in the sky. That big bold promise that I know I’ve reached out to in my darkest nights, the nights when I needed someone bigger than me to pull me through. I think he was saying: God dresses the field down to the tiniest details, God feeds the birds to their too fat to fly, but guess what– you matter to him the most. He is in this with you. You are not alone. It’s going to be okay. You are going to be okay.