When I was a kid I never really understood why someone who committed murder had to have a psychiatrist determine if they were insane or not. In my mind, it was pretty clear to me if you murder someone you weren’t exactly a paragon of virtue, kind-heartedness and clear thinking. Something was obviously not working in your brain or your heart the way things work for most of us most of the time. Is there any doubt but that the kid who killed the Newtown, Connecticut schoolchildren was insane? If you murder someone, that – by action and by definition – would seem to qualify you as crazy.
Murder as a Stress Solution
I wrote here about watching the mounting stressors in the life of a good friend disconnect his heart and turn his brain over to the dark side and him into a murderer, which was clear confirmation to me that our neurophysiology is enormously fluid and plastic, for better or worse. If you watch Dame Doctor Susan Greenfield on this video about 44 seconds in, you’ll see just how coolly and dynamically energetic neurons in the brain actually are. They’re like desperate ET’s frantically searching for connections that will allow them to phone home (where the heart lives?).
The limits of our neurophysiology then, the connections neurons are making or breaking – profoundly influenced by the world around us – dictate that every one of us is doing the absolute very best we can. . . in any moment. Our neuro-reality is a constant play of connection and disconnection. In any subsequent moment, with intent and practice, we might be able to strengthen neural connections so as to do something different and/or better, but subsequent moments as well, will find us doing the absolute best our changed neurophysiology will then allow. That was true for my murderer friend, Russ, and it’s been true for me as well. Were it truly not for blessed grace, during overwhelming times in my own life, I know how easily my life could have taken a trajectory much like Russ’s.
Gonzo neurologist, Oliver Sacks calls our capacity for directed thought the illusion of free will. It certainly seems like free will is no illusion when we find ourselves using such thought to accomplish all the desires and dreams of our waking lives. But what about when a conspiracy of transient stressors impose secret and subtle limits upon us? What about when a mini-stroke, or massive limbic highjacking or a lapse into momentary senility (aka, brain fart) takes temporary possession of us? Do we still have free will?
One Way or My Way
A recent personal example: One Saturday morning I agreed to meet my daughter and her friend in Seattle for breakfast. I had to run an errand beforehand that took me to an area of town that was completely unfamiliar. I felt little fear though, for I had my trusty iPhone displaying Google Maps. Nevertheless, suddenly I found myself lost. I ended up at an intersection displaying a dozen or more directional signs, two different stoplights and several jaywalking pedestrians. Between that confusion, checking Google Maps and searching frantically for a familiar street name, I suddenly found myself going the wrong way down a one-way street! I have to say, in that moment, I wasn’t particularly aware of my will being so free. Fortunately, the fates made it a short street and placed no speeding head-on traffic on it in that moment. Other people, at different times, aren’t always so lucky.
When I add to that experience, neuroscientist David Eagleman’s and social psychologist Timothy Wilson’s assertions that 99.99% of all momentary information our brains and bodies take in, we do so unconsciously, it’s kind of hard for me to make even a weak case for free will being a constant in my personal daily doings.
Forgive Not Lest You Be Unforgiven
But what does all this have to do with forgiveness and betrayal? I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but the evidence I see suggests that betrayal is the result of the absolute best response our neurophysiology can manage…in any moment. Our limbic brain and our 10th cranial nerve get together with our surrounding environment and conspire to distort and limit choice and perception and will, and severely compromise brain and bodily function. We temporarily become someone other than our sanest selves and never even realize it. Most of us are simply doing the very best we can in often confusing and overwhelming circumstances, mostly – in my experience – to feel less pain. And for that, we not only deserve to be forgiven, but we also deserve to forgive ourselves. It’s the only sane response to temporary insanity that I can imagine — with perhaps a bit of atonement and restorative justice thrown in as a way to put the balm on to help soothe our vagal-ventral complex (look it up).
One challenge in this regard, of course, is that we can’t simply think or wish our way to forgiveness. Thinking may be necessary, but it is rarely sufficient by itself to keep us oriented in the direction of more light. Violation and betrayal are dark somatic events, locked up and literally intertwined around our blood vessels, guts and nerve endings in a great complex cellular tapestry. Forgiveness is the term we give the the natural energetic and emotional consequence of meeting betrayal where it lives; it’s energy needs to be expressed through our physical bodies, exorcising traumatic memories from all the cellular nooks and crannies where they take up residence in betrayal’s aftermath. When we are no longer energetically incoherent and emotionally disturbed by memories of what occurred, we have forgiven. We are forgiven.
Am I forgiven?