I’m in the middle of a big project. It’s one of those deals where I am applying my experience in a wide range of past projects to a new one that has it’s own particular challenges, many of which I can clearly see are made up of steep, unavoidable learning curves. The project also involves the participation of a good number of other people, all of whom I must rely on, and trust that they will come through.
There is money involved, which is an easy trigger for anxiety in my monkey brain. And reputation, which is vitally important to us social mammals.
As I write this, I’m at the ragged edge of exhaustion, enhanced, in no small part, by the four days of spotty sleep brought on by my brain’s response to stress.
Our brains are pretty interesting things.
It was some years ago when I first experienced the rather impressive energy my mind and body were capable of producing for days on end (when the situation called for it). It was probably when I was making sets for the opera. I became a sort of carpenter-berzerker, working early until late, and getting up and doing it again, and again, and again. (The week after the set was done, I would crash and have to take some time to get myself back in working order).
I became rather proud and impressed that one part of my self could so clearly heed the call of my conscious brain and pass the word on down to my body and off we would go. The only downside is that once kicked into such a high gear, my mind doesn’t really know how to turn itself off. It seems to just switch on and like some angry badger will not let go until the great task is dead, dead, dead.
Of course, depending on your worldview, one might think of this as God’s spirit helping us along, or one’s “higher-self” coming to our aid in a pinch. The reality is, of course, that this is just how our brains and bodies react to stress. There is some trigger that gets tripped when we feel the threat of a potential disaster should the challenge confronting us overcome us instead of us conquering it. Eat or be eaten.
A fair share of our time in life is taken up with the pursuit of some sort of conceptual framework which we can apply to life (including the way our brains actually work). It makes sense: we are born squalling and helpless into a world none of us has ever seen before (despite the claims of reincarnation). We are living, breathing beings for whom knowledge of our world is vital — our very survival depends upon it. So it is also very natural to us (and, again, vital) to learn from those of our kind who have more experience than we do.
I think if we each reflected on our life we could easily recall those moments when someone else was there with a word of instruction or advice at the right time, and also recall the tremendous sense of relief and gratitude that accompanied those occasions (okay, maybe not when the instruction was a rebuke from mom or dad). Of course, we often find out later that we’ve been given the wrong advice, or incorrect (or at least incomplete) information. But sometimes the accuracy of what we pick up is not as important as the encouragement that is part and parcel of someone sharing their experience with us.
This is how I became a Christian when I was 14. In response to my own curiosity, my older brother let me take a “Bridge to Life” tract from the stack he had by his bed. As he was busy trying to finish a paper for school, he sent me off with this over-the-shoulder matter-of-fact remark: “Read it, and then say the prayer at the end before you go to bed”.
I went to my room, and read the tract that introduced me, for the first time it seemed, to the concept of sin and salvation through Christ. When I got to the prayer at the end, I remembered his instruction to say it before I went to bed. But I was about to go to a high school football game, and reasoned that in case something “happened” while there (jumped by a gang of thugs, or some such), maybe I’d be better off to say it now. So I did.
This began my spiritual journey, and over time I attended meetings and studies and churches and learned what it really meant to be a Christian. And, being the kind of person I am (with the kind of mind I have), I took it seriously for some long stretches of 15 years of my life, finding myself, at last, smuggling Christian literature behind the iron curtain as a “Summer” missionary. But that’s another story.
In time I came to realize that Christianity was not the “truth” I had been told it was. I had been given bad advice. I felt foolish. How could I have fallen for all of that? (Well, it turns out that was not the last thing I would “fall” for before the spell of belief was finally broken).
I don’t feel so foolish about believing what I did (when I did) now. I’ve come to understand that we are believers by nature. I also understand how profoundly social we are, so that when my own brother tells me Jesus is Lord, and there is a Holy Spirit and a God the Father, I am naturally going to give his words some weight. I had no reason to doubt him, and I also have no reason to blame him, for he was a believer too.
So as I observe this evolved computing/sensing/thinking electrified fleshy organ in my skull at work, I see it now for the biological organ that it is, and less as a conduit to anything higher than my own consciousness. The human mind is amazing, but not in the sense of it being anything close to perfect. Oh no. It is like everything else in life (and, actually, like everyONE else in life): a complex organism doing the best it can with what natural selection and evolution have given it. Our minds, like our bodies, are the sum total of millions of years of random changes, enough of which were beneficial to our survival (or at least not dangerous to it) to allow it to survive until it became “us”. It was not built from scratch from a brilliant new design. Nope, it was built upon the first cells that generated their own little electrical impulses.
It is an amazing story — this tale of how we came to be — scads more interesting that any reductionist religious fable we humans have invented to give us that much-needed conceptual framework we so eagerly search for.
And though I aggressively stand up to anyone trying to impose their religious beliefs on others, I don’t hate religion or religious believers. For in the bigger scheme of things, we are all babes in the woods trying to find our way in the very short time we have to figure it all out. My brain is what it is: both ancient and modern; hard-wired and plastic; wonderful and clunky. It’s the only brain I’m gonna have, in the only life I’m gonna live. I’m doing the best I can to do the best I can with it.