Cognitive Routes Toward Empathy

I learned about mirror neurons before I knew what they were. We didn’t discuss these little brain pieces in my psychology courses at U of I. At least, I don’t remember discussing them.

There was a long string of hormones and hemispheres and lobes and Wiernke this and Braca that. I recall little pictures of synapses and the corresponding discussions about firing them and the little joke I kept making from then on about how several people I knew did not have all their synapses firing when they should.

It may have been that mirror neurons were noted in Dr. Boch’s course. I’m sure if I emailed Dr. Zabradoff about it, she could pull up a syllabus or an outline or, back then, a slide from her overhead projector which would clearly explicate the difference between that neuron and some other notoriously-to-me-obscure cellular detail.

I was not a specialist in those subjects under cognitive psychology. I preferred the clinical emphases which gave me some tools to talk to people with varying levels of brain strength. I was the student looking to hear from people on a crisis line in the middle of the night whose synapses were firing too much, mental pictures blending together into a collage they’d try to explain three hours before I was to wake up and go to class.

Even then I knew there was such a thing as a mirror neuron. I talked about it most recently to my wife as the thing my boy sensed when he was a little baby, when one of us was anxious, which would make him anxious. When I started my residency in clinical pastoral education, I learned that my son’s mirror neurons were firing.

A mirror neuron is that tiny brain particle that enables us—in our heads and in the rest of us—to mirror the experience of another. It is part of an internal neural mechanism that provides “a cognitive route” for our brains to evaluate social systems and for our emotions to catch up and act accordingly.

Another way of saying it is that mirror neurons make empathy possible. They are the little tools in our heads that make us able to see a social situation and create an appropriate emotional, verbal, and social response. And we often gauge response by mirroring what we see in another person. So we see a person who’s anxious and we interpret the situation as anxiety-provoking. We judge for the best response. We either become a non-anxious or, better, a less-anxious presence, or we get swept into (i.e., we jump into) the anxiety itself.

Have you ever noticed that you yawn when someone else does, that you feel happy after being around a person who lifts your spirit a bit? Those are mirror neurons at work.

I wonder what it would be like for people to take that little piece of information and run with it. If we could agree in the world for a moment or in a congregation for a weekend to show forth some kind of joy in front of another, some type of resilience for another, in order that that person might mirror us. It feels like it’s worth doing.

What if we agreed to show our deepest wounds, to wear them across our faces, in order to reflect the real, already present vulnerability at the core our selves? We could do it with our mental illnesses, with a quieted grief processes, with our dashed hopes and our fledgling beliefs.

It feels like we might make the world a slightly deeper place, a place where we could be less ashamed of smiling or crying or sobbing because we wouldn’t be the only ones doing so.

The Race

Posted for all those relatives–past and present–who do everything to share those last moments with their lovely ones.

The Race by Sharon Olds

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,

bought a ticket, ten minutes later

they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors

had said my father would not live through the night

and the flight was cancelled. A young man

with a dark brown moustache told me

another airline had a nonstop

leaving in seven minutes. See that

elevator over there, well go

down to the first floor, make a right, you’ll

see a yellow bus, get off at the

second Pan Am terminal, I

ran, I who have no sense of direction

raced exactly where he’d told me, a fish

slipping upstream deftly against

the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those

bags I had thrown everything into

in five minutes, and ran, the bags

wagged me from side to side as if

to prove I was under the claims of the material,

I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,

I who always go to the end of the line, I said

Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said

Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then

run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,

at the top I saw the corridor,

and then I took a deep breath, I said

Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,

I used my legs and heart as if I would

gladly use them up for this,

to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the

bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed

in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of

women running, their belongings tied

in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my

long legs he gave me, my strong

heart I abandoned to its own purpose,

I ran to Gate 17 and they were

just lifting the thick white

lozenge of the door to fit it into

the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not

too rich, I turned sideways and

slipped through the needle’s eye, and then

I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet

was full, and people’s hair was shining, they were

smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a

mist of gold endorphin light,

I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,

in massive relief. We lifted up

gently from one tip of the continent

and did not stop until we set down lightly on the

other edge, I walked into his room

and watched his chest rise slowly

and sink again, all night

I watched him breathe.

The Dumb Comfort of Your Presence

Hospital stays are one of the few times in adulthood when we have an excuse to drop all the busywork that normally preoccupies us and go to be with the people we love.  You simply spend time with them, without any social occasion for it–a wedding or anniversary, dinner or the theater.  You just sit there in the same room, making small talk or reading, offering the dumb comfort of your presence.  You are literally There for them.  When you’re a kid, this is one of dullest, most dehumanizing things you’re forced to do–being dressed up in a navy blazer or a sweater vest and dragged to family reunions to be fawned over like a photo in an album, your physical presence all that’s required of you.  But if you manage to make it to some semblance of adulthood, just showing up turns out to be one of the kindest, most selfless things you can do for someone.  And it isn’t only selfless.  At the beginning of my stay, my friend Lauren told me over the phone, “I know this seems like a drag, but someday, I promise you, you will look back and be grateful that you had this time…”

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing, pgs. 179-180

Blog Break

I will be away from the blogging habit for a while.  I hope to fill in posts during the next year with a monthly rant at a minimum.  I’ll be writing a lot of non-public writing as part of the residency in clinical pastoral education.  And between my other classes, a new peer group, and church work, I won’t be able to give you access to my scattered ramblings on the blog.

I did have other hopes.  But my limits are clear.

Take care until later, blog of mine.

A Prayer For All Our School Starts

O God, you know “our ends from our beginnings” as my elders used to say.  You know our downsittings and our uprisings.  Our futures belong to you.  Our futures are with you.

Look ahead into this year and bless us with all the growth that would make you look good and make us look more like who we really are.

You know that this year will have shifts for us, changes to our schedules, and that we’ll need you, it seems, more than before.  We submit to you and how you’ll work through the long pulling that will come.

Call us and speak to us and journey with us.  Live in and through us so that we might bring light into darkness.

Give us grace that we might be full of love.  May our days begin and end with you and be punctuated by love and grace.

Where we will learn to write this year, give us ready pens and appointed words.  May the strokes coming from our fingers spell words that cause ourselves and others to flourish.

Where we will learn to count this year, make us ready to notice things, to add things to our lives what you bring and to patiently suffer through any subtraction for the loss it will be.

When we learn to work with others, make us prepared and mature enough to reconcile, to be humble, to practice silence even if it’s only holding that last word or that convincing, if sharp, retort.

When we listen, slow us down and open us to be so generous that what things people say and write and live become gifts which we cherish and steward and protect.

And finally, may you grant us these particulars:

That Bryce may have a fun year, one full of learning leaps like last time, loving his teachers and developing friendships with his classmates and collecting all those good words we say about him as a brilliant, beautiful, beloved boy.

May you grant Dawn the repeated remarkable brilliance of all her previous courses, giving her the steady help she needs as she prepares and sits for her comprehensive exam.

May you go with me daily into the learning rooms of the seminaries, into the peer work and ministry in the hospital, and into the regular course of growth that is my church ministry.

May we labor for you and with you and may we be marked with memorable moments we’ll never forget.  Will you change us for the better, sweetening me, preserving the best natures of my wife and son, and turning us continually toward you as a family.

For us all, give us an abiding sense of your presence, reminders of your unfailing nature, comments and signposts along each path that you are active, boldly bringing about healing for people, growth in us, and justice for the world.


Creating a Rule of Life, pt 8

There’s one more post next week on this, where I’ll try to offer a grid to pull things together.  The final category that Debra Farrington teaches we should include in the Rule of Life is hospitality.  It comes after prayer, service, self care and so on.  Hospitality builds upon these previous traits, these earlier acts.  Centering our efforts in these other places, as hospitable people, we show who we are and how we’ve become and how we are becoming.

When I think of hospitality, I think of my mother’s regular, unmentioned, almost unseen way of opening our home to several people when I was a child.  I think of how our table on Sundays was the church’s table, our house turning inside out as people came and ate at her hand.

I think of Grammie and how she takes us in each winter for a week in the upstairs of her home, with a water pitcher on the nightstand, how she considers our time, how we make meals together, and how we have our long liberal conversations which cover beginning to end of the current things that matter.

I think of my sister friend, Maggie, and how she naturally exerts herself into the hearts of people by preparing meals, cooking simple and elaborate options, listening and making me listen, and talking about so many things I’d never notice.

I think of the earlier Bishop and Mrs. Trotter from my boyhood who granted me an essential hospitality, taking me into their home and allowing it to literally become my home.  Each memory was somehow sweet behind those trees on Hopkins place and like these other powerful events have shaped me into someone attempting hospitality when people come around.

Hospitality is a peopled act.  It’s not between me and God.  It’s defined by the interaction between people.  It doesn’t always involve food and housing, but hosting is that plain way we take or accept or invite or keep people in our presence.  It’s about how well we notice and sustain contact between us and another.

I don’t do hospitality well when I’m tired because of my natural bent toward interiority.  I know I need to retreat regularly in order to be like Mama or Maggie or Grammie or the Trotters of my childhood.  What seemed easy for them is good work for me.

And that’s where the Rule comes in.  The Rule of Life asks us to be intentional about those times when we’ll turn toward others, not for service, but for humanity.  We need others.  We don’t need to do things for others, but we do, simply, need people.  Like food and water, our lives only make sense in relationship with others.

There is an essential rightness to friendship, a wrongness too when it’s real, but the rightness signals how we just require people.  The same with marriage or long-term working relationship and so forth.  We need those peopled affairs because those affairs compose or lives.

Where will you stretch in this area over the next months?  Where will you extend yourself and thereby become your self?  Where will you intentionally place people in your day or week so you can be hosted and so you can host?