On Compassion, Forgiveness and the Brain

daenerys drogon

Photo source

Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

(Fortunately for me, I have not been that angry with any one person in a long time, but only with a group of people terrorizing my beautiful island of Mindanao, oh yeah. I was so angry that in my imagination, I didn’t even have to be Daenerys. I was happy just to be Drogon!)

Don’t you find it exhausting when you dislike this person so much, but this person just can’t disappear from your life? You hear people talking about him/her, and it’s worse when he/she is doing so well while you aren’t?

For us, humans, anger towards somebody is most often accompanied by its best friend, jealousy. Those two are perhaps the ugliest, meanest pair ever. They will keep you awake at night, make you lose your appetite, then your energy.

If you’re smart or meet the right people who can help you get rid of that ugly pair, then lucky you. If not, that pair will ruin your life.

A few months ago, I started reading Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars. For some reason I could not finish reading it, but a couple of weeks ago I picked it up again and read the chapter called “A Surgeon’s Life,” which is about Dr. Carl Bennett (a pseudonym), a surgeon who has Tourette’s Syndrome.

This chapter was truly an eye-opener for me, and I’m writing about this because I am hoping this can somehow also make my readers re-evaluate how we judge our fellow human beings.

Dr. Bennett is highly respected by his colleagues and patients, and despite his tics, is able to perform surgery efficiently as if he didn’t have Tourette’s at all. He said the outward expressions of his Tourette’s that most people see are not the worst problems he has to face. The real ones are those within — panic and rage. In his words,

                “It’s not gentle….You can see it as whimsical, funny — be tempted to romanticize it —   but Tourette’s comes from deep down in the nervous system and the unconscious. It taps    into the oldest, strongest feelings we have. Tourette’s is like an epilepsy in the  subcortex.; when it takes over, there’s just a thin line of control, a thin line of cortex,  between you and it, between you and that raging storm, the blind force of the subcortex.     One can see the charming things, the funny things, the creative side of Tourette’s, but there’s also that dark side. You have to fight it all your life.”

At home, Dr. Bennett can give expression to this rage, not directed at people but at inanimate objects around him. His wall, his refrigerator are witnesses to this rage. One wall is covered with knife marks.

Scary? I find this very sad. That a human being who does not want to be violent CANNOT CHOOSE not to be violent.

Dr. Bennett is fortunate enough to have a family that understands and accepts him and helps him deal with all of these. But not everyone is as fortunate as Dr. Bennett. I wonder how many people out there have undiagnosed neurological disorders, committing crimes which they could not help doing? They don’t even know why they are doing it, or perhaps they think they know why they are doing it; but do they really?

I wonder if a brain scan is required of every criminal, how many of these people we would find to have neurological disorders?

This question led me to think how the human brain is very much like a computer. Just as computers have software-related problems such as viruses and bugs, the human brain can have chemical imbalance or viral infections. And just like computers that can have hardware-related problems such as overheating, a malfunctioning chip or a motherboard failure, our brain can also suffer from head or brain injuries.

When your computer is defective, do you try to save it or do you discard it, right away?

It seems computers are luckier than humans because we can easily see that our computer has a problem, and our initial reaction is to find out what caused it and how to fix it.

But with a human being, if his brain has a problem but it’s undiagnosed, we right away judge the person according to his actions without asking whether he has control over his actions or not.

What is worse is we label these people as crazy, nuts, wacko, lunatic, deranged, etc. without even knowing what caused them to become such people. Perhaps  you have heard or read about people who were known to be gentle or kind, and all of a sudden murdered somebody. People express shock or disbelief, saying it was totally out of character.

Here are some ways people can suddenly change:

Trauma to the brain can cause a drastic change in personality. 

Alcohol and drugs (medications) can change a person’s personality. 

Viral infections in the brain can cause a change in personality. 

Certain foods and food  ingredients like MSG can affect your behavior. 

Now, going back to my first question: Have you ever been extremely angry with somebody that you imagined you were Daenerys riding Drogon which was breathing fire on to your enemies?

If you have or you still are extremely angry with somebody, ask yourself whether it’s possible this person has a hardware or software-related problem in his brain, and perhaps he has no control over some of his thoughts and actions, just like, sometimes, you have no control over some of your own thoughts and actions.

And when you realize that we are all in the same boat, then you would hopefully understand your fellow human being, and perhaps forgiving will be a little bit easier (but, of course, be smart about it!)

I wonder if that is what prompted Jesus to utter these words when he was crucified: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

When he said those words, He became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness.

 

Note:

A couple of years ago a friend and I talked about whether human beings have free will or not. Back then I wasn’t really convinced that we don’t, but mostly because I did not have the time to think about it and read about it more. But now I think my friend may be on to something. 🙂 He wrote a book called Without Free Will. It’s well-written and thought-provoking. Check it out.

Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. Be grateful. Move on. 

   

Sunset at Dalipuga, Iligan, Philippines 

One of my favorite poems that I can recite by heart is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I kept reciting this poem to my baby when I was still pregnant, and even after my son was born. HBO’s Classical Baby The Poetry Show includes a reading of this poem by Susan Sarandon, and it is now my 5-year old son’s favorite part of the video.

A thought came to mind today as I watched my son give me the sweetest smile when the video clip began. A few months after our son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband wished Eli would not grow so quickly. Today, only for a moment I wished Eli would never grow up, so people can excuse his strange stimming habits, his speech delay and other autistic traits. Every now and then  I worry about whether or not he will be able to live independently, when my husband and I won’t be around to look after him anymore.

Frost’s poem talks about how we, once in a while, encounter something that makes us wish could last at least a lifetime, but we all have other things to do — duties, responsibilities, roles to play in other people’s lives — so we have to move on, continue living our lives.

The speaker in this poem though was truly in the moment. He   noticed his surroundings: the snow-covered woods, the frozen lake; he heard the sound of the harness bells and the wind. He also used his imagination (“My little horse must think it queer…”), and was quite aware not only of the lack of danger (…He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow), but also of his responsibilities and of the life he had to live,   (But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.) 

Oftentimes I look at my son and wonder what life will be like for him. Will he ever be able to speak like a neurotypical person? Will he be able to read by himself the books that he loves for me to read to him? Will he be able to write down his own name?  But then I stop myself from doing this, and instead do things with him. Not much use wondering about the future when so much of it depends on the present.

What I liked most about Frost’s poem is the idea that though we can (and we should) live our lives — face our responsibilities, fulfill our duties, find our way in the darkness — we can stop once in a while and just enjoy what we have in our lives: food on our table, clothes to keep us warm (or cool), roof over our heads,  air we breathe, water we drink, family, friendship. And love. And faith that everything will be all right in the end.

Thank you. Salamat. 谢谢。

Are we really what we eat? 

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Does coffee have any effect on you? Does chocolate?

Coffee is my non-human best friend. It gave me energy when I most needed it after my son was born. Though sleep-deprived, I still needed to function efficiently and coffee made it possible to stay awake and teach at eight in the morning, come home and feed the baby, and do housework, and prepare lessons, etc. I am forever grateful to the person that invented coffee drink.

My son used to have laughing fits even when there’s nothing visibly funny, especially after having his then favorite breakfast of peanut butter on toast. Several people told me back then to just let it be because he’s a “happy boy.” I also witnessed how chocolate could make him unbearably hyperactive.  His laughing fits and hyperactivity stopped when we put him on GF/CF diet. I am forever grateful to the person that came up with the GF/CF diet for people with ASD.

Reading about autism and diet, and books on neurology especially by Dr. Oliver Sacks, and witnessing firsthand the effects of medicine on my leukemic mother’s mind,  made me wonder if we are nothing but mere slaves to every single thing that is already in or enters our body — food, medicine, bacteria, chemicals, etc.

For example, what we call personality can easily be changed, not by our will to change (that’s not easy at all), but by lesions in the  brain.

In his book, An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Sacks wrote about Greg who, as a young man in the 60’s, rebelled against convention, took drugs to seek a “higher consciousness,” later dropped drugs to seek this “higher consciousness” in religion, namely Hare Krishna. His first year at the temple saw him as obedient, pious. Then he started losing his eyesight which the temple residents took to mean his “inner light was growing. ” Greg was also becoming more withdrawn which again, people interpreted as becoming “enlightened.” Long story short, it was only when his parents insisted on taking him to the doctor that it was discovered that Greg had a growing tumor in his brain.

     “Brain imaging had shown an enormous midline tumor, destroying the pituitary gland and the adjacent optic chiasm and tracts and extending on both sides into the frontal lobes. It also reached backward to the temporal lobes, and downward to the diencephalon, or forebrain. At surgery, the tumor was found to be benign, a meningioma—but it had swollen to the size of a small grapefruit or orange, and though the surgeons were able to remove it almost entirely, they could not undo the damage it had already done.”

This brain damage radically changed Greg’s personality. In the hospital “his seeming serenity (actually blandness), gave him an appearance of innocence and wisdom combined, gave him a special status on the ward, ambiguous but respected, a Holy Fool.”

Many other patients written about in this book showed major changes in their personalities after suffering from brain injury.

This, then, made me wonder if we have any independent will of our own at all? If the decisions that we make are truly our own, or are mere results of these little things in our body that ultimately feed our brain and change the way we think, speak and behave.

Alcohol and drugs sure can influence the way we think or behave. Children with ASD behave differently and sense things differently when they are overstimulated or not. Neurotypical people take all kinds of medication or drinks to make them feel better or think more clearly.

I used to think that the expression “You are what you eat” only referred to physical health. Now I’m beginning to think that that applies to our mental health as well.

(This is just a draft of what I really wanted to write. I’ll rewrite this when I have more time to be alone and think!)

Travel Woes

 

Afternoon clouds over Visayas, Philippines. I was so excited to see this cloud formation. Looks like a duck, don’t you think?

 

Pack. 
Unpack. 
Pack. 
Unpack. 

I could fill this page 
With the same words
According to the number of times
I had to 

Pack. 
Unpack. 

Barely had the time to start shedding 
The pounds from stress eating  
And I’m stressing and stress eating again. 

Someone once said to me, 
When tragedies pile up
Then you have a comedy. 

How come I’m not laughing? 

March 3, 2016

On Living to be 100

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A few weeks ago, a friend and I exchanged thoughts about living to be 100, and this was my reply: “Nah. I really don’t want to live that long. Not even if I’m healthy. I’m curious about what’s on the other side. If there’s nothing, then at least I won’t be disappointed. ” 

And my friend replied: “Consciousness is probably overrated. “

For Christians and other believers of an afterlife, death is not scary as it means reunion with the Creator. It means eternal life of happiness. (I came across this post about death a few weeks ago, and the writer beautifully expresses, not exactly the same but similar, thoughts that I have about life and death.)

I have no idea how many there are like me , but I am one of those who are more curious about what’s on the other side, rather than prolonging our earthly life. I am not saying though that I would willingly abandon my responsibilities as a mother, daughter, wife, sister, aunt. My point is, I simply prefer not to live too long.

However, I have thought about the possibility of living a longer life. I once met an 86-year old medical doctor, who was quite spry — travellling back and forth from the US to Asia, attending medical conferences, seeing patients, doing Zumba. She’s enjoying her life at 86. Would I want to be able to do that at 86?

With discoveries and inventions in the fields of science and technology, people are living longer and healthier lives.  Not only that, it probably won’t be long before immortality ceases to be mere imagination and becomes reality with the ability of human beings to create cyborgs.

If I could stay fit till I’m 100, perhaps I would be able to do all the things I would like to do but in which at the moment I am unable to indulge. I have talked about this with a friend. We both could not understand how people could be at a loss as to what to do when there’s so many interesting things to do when you have the time and health to do them

I’m not sporty nor sociable, so I do not need to be with so many people all the time. If I could live to be 100, I would spend my time reading all the books I’ve been meaning to read. I would take photographs of beautiful flowers and landscapes, learn more about the human brain, study astronomy, volunteer to help children with special needs and starving children, go.out for morning walks, watch the sunset, and write down my thoughts about all these things.

So does this mean I want to live to be 100?

No. Not at this time when humanity’s mortality is still very real, when one can still witness the human body aging, when you can still hear people groaning in pain and watch them suffer emotionally , as they struggle to remember dates and names of people they used to love so passionately,  and suffer physically as they can no longer move what used to be nimble limbs that made them jump, run, throw or catch or hit a ball.

Having a body that slowly stops functioning one part at a time is torture. Seeing it happen to others is a scary enough reminder that it can happen to you too.

So, no. I do not want to live to be 100. “Consciousness is overrated.”

How about you?

On living, loving and leaving

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Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

There has been much debate on the meaning of this sonnet, particularly the last couplet:

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What is the young man supposed to eventually leave before long: his friend or his own youth?

I will not join in the debate, but I am quoting the sonnet here because I was reminded of it (and John Donne’s Sonnet 10) twice today: first, when I read this poem by John White called Laughing about it ; second, when I read Temple Grandin’s tribute to Oliver Sacks, who also wrote a moving article reflecting on his relationship with his Orthodox family and the Sabbath.

Whether the speaker meant that the young man had to leave his friend or his youth, to me, is not the point, rather that the knowledge that one is leaving something valuable makes one appreciate it or love it even more.

My first real understanding of this line happened one summer day when my best friend and I stood in a forest, listening to the sound of the leaves of the trees as the breeze was passing through, and I said it was beautiful I wish it could last forever; and he said it was beautiful simply because it was not going to last.

(Not long after that my best friend left, and for a while, that memory always made me cry. But with time, I have learned to call on that memory, and it just brings a beautiful feeling.)

If we truly love someone or something –a place, a person, a pet or life itself —  the knowledge of our imminent leaving of it/them will make our love for it/them even stronger.

Perhaps it is the best way to live every minute of our short life here: to always remember that we won’t be here forever, that we are always about to leave. Perhaps then we can love wholeheartedly, not only for a minute or an hour or for a day, but for a lifetime.

On Choosing Whom to Love

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“All my life, as soon as a person got attached to me, I did everything to distance them. The first person whom I loved and I was faithful to escaped me through drugs, through betrayal. Maybe many things came from this, from vanity, from fear of suffering further, and yet I have accepted so much suffering. But I have in turn escaped from everyone since and, in a certain way I wanted everyone to escape from me.”

“I sometimes accuse myself of being incapable of love. Maybe this is true, but I have also been able to select a few people and to take care of them faithfully, with the best of myself, no matter what they do.

– Albert Camus as quoted in Camus, A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes (I bought a hardbound copy of this book years ago, but I saw the book again yesterday as my husband and I were sorting books to throw and to keep!)

Camus was a known womanizer, he talked about loving the many women in his life in the love letters he wrote them, yet in his journals he wrote of distancing himself from them. He sometimes wondered if he was incapable of love, yet admitted to “taking care” of a few people faithfully the best he could no matter what these people did.

I am not writing to justify nor excuse Camus’ womanizing, but rereading this quote from him reminded me of how simple it can be to love somebody, truly love somebody, anybody; but people, especially men like Camus make it so complicated. To me, he WAS capable of love, and indeed he loved those whom he faithfully took care of no matter what they did.

You cannot choose who to like or dislike or be physically/sexually attracted to, it’s a feeling. But you can definitely choose whom you give your time, energy and yourself (body and soul) to – and that’s love.

You cannot choose your biological family (not yet, anyway, perhaps with technology it will be possible), but you can choose to love or not love your family. You may like your family, but you may not love them. (“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re cool. I haven’t heard from my folks for a month!) You may not like your family sometimes, but you may love them because you take care of them, you provide for them, and make sure they are all right.

Now I can totally understand when young people make the mistake of “falling in love” with someone who everyone thinks is the wrong person, because as recent findings reveal, the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex responsible for regulation of emotions, does not reach full maturity until mid-20s. Young people may not be able to “think ahead” and “make mature decisions”, and it’s perfectly understandable because neurologically speaking, they are not of that age yet.

But if you are a “typical” (I no longer like using the word “normal” because, really, what does it mean these days?) adult, you should be able to think and choose whether or not to invest in a person or a relationship. If a part of you is doubtful whether you should give more of your time, energy (and money) to be with a person who doesn’t seem to give the same to be with you,  you don’t need to pray to the gods or ask your friends over and over again whether this person loves you or not. Get that pre-frontal cortex working and figure it out yourself. It will be good exercise for your brain. 🙂