To say that I was surprised to learn that the woman who invited me to lunch for my birthday was a New York model in high demand throughout the fashion world would be an understatement. First of all, why would Siona want to have lunch with me? Secondly, what was up with those angry, nauseating rashes on her arms and neck running down the front of her chest?
If that was surprising, imagine how astonished I was when three months later I found myself in the midst of a crazy-wild romantic relationship with her, sans rashes. Or how surprised I was to wake up from a lazy, post-coital nap one Saturday afternoon to sounds of loud, angry shouting down in the kitchen. Siona and her ex, Alan, were apparently in the midst of another heated disagreement. When I roused myself from bed, got dressed and headed for the hallway, I suddenly heard footsteps downstairs pounding across the hardwood floors. I got to the head of the stairwell just as Siona reached the top and dashed by me. Alan was not far behind.
As he made the turn in the stairwell, I moved to block his path. When he reached the top step I spontaneously held both my arms out as if to welcome him. I truly knew how it felt to have someone abandon a primary relationship with me that I desperately wanted to continue. And I would know it again.
With absolutely no hesitation at all Alan fell full into my embrace and immediately began sobbing uncontrollably. To say Alan was surprised by this emotional outpouring would do it no justice. Siona couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Neither could I. It certainly wasn’t part of any well-crafted plan. But shouldn’t I offer Alan at least the same compassion I have offered a rattlesnake?
Pulitzer Prize winning writer Isabel Wilkerson, in a recent interview – The Heart is the Last Frontier – asks a very curious question: “After they have shot a citizen – effectively removing the threat lawbreakers represent – why don’t police immediately being offering compassionate care?” If they came upon a person lying in the street with a gunshot, wounded by someone else, they would immediately offer aid and call for help.
There are lots of neurobiological reasons I could offer for why that doesn’t happen, but here’s the thing – there’s little in our human potential to actually prevent it. But like most things in life that lead to successful change, we need knowledge, training and practice.
Here’s why this is such a critical issue. It’s something we rarely learn about our own unskillful, hurtful behavior: our brain is watching everything we do; and in its wiring there’s no separation between you and me. Your brain wiring and my brain wiring are much like the underground root systems of trees – in constant, ongoing communication. Policemen, soldiers, or any of us, don’t shoot people and have our brains and bodies escape without dire, compromising consequence, no matter how “justified” the act (assuming killing or hurting another living creature is ever justified).
Good Book Neuro-Wisdom
“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” from Romans 12:19 is a truism that essentially speaks to this neurobiological reality. Whatever we do unto others gets recorded and stored in our own neural networks. If it’s unskillful or reactive behavior that our Vigilant Sentinel observes, it can later express itself as high levels of stress hormones, poor sleep, disorganized thinking, compromised immune function and physical illness. Leave the vengeance for God and a perpetrator’s own neurobiology to take care of.
Memoirist, Mary Karr elegantly articulates what happens when the Vigilant Sentinel watches us lying:
Lying carves a lonely gap between your disguise and who you really are. The practiced liar projects her own manipulative, double-dealing facade onto everyone she meets, which makes moving though the world a wary, anxious enterprise. It’s hard enough to see what’s going on without forcing yourself to see through the wool you’ve pulled over your own eyes. The Art of Memoir, pg 12
Home Is Where the Hurt Is
We need training and practice in recognizing that many ways hurtful and antisocial behavior shows up in our cities and towns have their roots originating in early Adverse Childhood Experiences. Alan didn’t show up angry in Siona’s kitchen completely free of all personal history. Early unfortunate experiences frequently affect brain development in angry, anti-social ways later down the road. But it’s difficult to connect the dots 25 years afterwards when you show up emotionally hijacked in an ex-lover’s kitchen. Cause and effect end up being too complex and too far removed.
Nevertheless, every public servant and policymaker the world over should be given a primer in developmental neuroscience and trauma-informed policies rooted in compassion. If they were, they might enact legislation that I believe could help right many early wrongs and the human race could make exponential leaps in development over the course of just a few generations. If for nothing else, then for the $300 million! we would NOT have to spend on abused children in just one American city every year.
Policies best for the children, are usually best for the human heart.