On Good Brains

Some time back, I read a news article featuring an African doctor who dedicated his practice to assisting female victims of rape in the Congo. Unfortunately, I can no longer find the article, but he shared how he is a Christian, and a philosophy he holds in alignment with his beliefs is that God gave us good brains and expects us to use them for good.

This resonated strongly with me. As a Catholic, I have attended a couple of Marriage Encounter retreats, and a phrase they introduce at the beginning of the weekend is, "God does not make junk." Many couples who attend the retreat come in with shredded self-esteem, and one of the things Marriage Encounter attempts to accomplish is to restore individual self-worth. The Catholic Church is well aware that we all have our wounds, a side effect of living in this world, and they believe part of serving Christ is to encourage its followers to opening themselves to Christ, to share our woundedness with Him, so that He can touch and heal those wounds.

Sometimes, we may experience full healing of those wounds. Other times, not so much. It depends in part on the trauma, the depth of our scars, and ultimately, perfection is not a guarantee in our lifetimes. We will always carry some sort of scar from a trauma, yet that is not a sentence of doom, but rather a reality, because we cannot forget, and in some cases it would be dangerous to develop a dismissive or casual viewpoint about what has happened to us.

Anger has its benefits. It can protect us by letting us know when a situation is unjust and dangerous. It can also be a catalyst for finding a solution or seeking justice.

Grief exists as a cathartic tool. A good cry is damn good for you because tears literally wash toxins from our bodies and the physical activity associated with crying can release endorphins. Crying is also a signal to others around us that we are in need of care and empathic support, not a sign of weakness.

It's important to point out here that empathy and sympathy are not the same thing. Empathy is the capacity to put ourselves in a mindset where we imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. To empathize is to connect, and many times, this is far more important than sympathizing, which is when we share or agree with someone's feelings.

I am not discounting the value of sympathizing, as of course that is also important. Rather, I am pointing out that empathy goes beyond. It allows for deeper understanding and opens the door to providing better support, because then we are truly side by side, helping someone in need carry the load.

We cannot let our scars be a limitation when it comes to helping others. I am sure even the good doctor from Africa who I mentioned in the first paragraph has his own story, and yet he has not let that stop him from bringing healing and hope to women victims. Similarly, we cannot allow our scars and those who inflicted them to lie to us and tell us that we are junk.

From an intellectual and spiritual standpoint, discernment is also a valuable skill. Discernment is the ability to understand what is going on clearly with people and situations, and being able to exercise best judgment in how to respond. Christian teachings often encourage the use of prayer and Scripture to reach optimal discernment before acting on a situation. Some call this a spirit of discernment, or spiritual discernment, and I believe it is an essential practice. If you are not Christian, discernment is still an important skill to develop; you may refer to it as common sense, street smarts, or any number of other terms.

Discernment is a wonderful way to get beyond the lies and limitations that exist because of internal scars and external abusers. My son can sometimes experience anxiety because of his disabilities and the dynamic hormonal changes he is experiencing at his age. He ends up asking cyclical questions repeatedly as a result. I have told him in response that his having a particular thought does not make it truth, and that if logic, evidence, and experience all outnumber that thought, then he must tell himself that he will not buy into that false thought. He must tell himself not to believe that lie.

So it is with us as well. Escaping the clutches of puberty does not stop the mind from generating false thoughts, especially when we experience anxiety and troubling times, or when anger prompts us to go to an irrational place.

A midwife once said to me that the mind is a dangerous playground. Indeed, we have to take care to navigate our own thoughts so as not to let them lead us to dangerous places and fail to exercise discernment.

Let's go back to the phrase, "God does not make junk." That includes your brain. Are you aware that you already have all of the above skills and that you can already reap the benefits of your God-given emotions, including anger and sadness? Are you aware you may already be practicing these daily?

If you sat with someone recently and felt sad with them while they grieved, or felt angry with them as they raged, without the need to fix their problems, and you let them know you understand how they feel, then you have empathized.

If you made a decision not to spend money on a goodie that was tempting because you knew buying it would make or break the ability to take your family on an amazing vacation this summer, then you have exercised discernment and common sense.

If you stood up to someone at work who was spreading rumors or gossiping about a coworker who you know is of upstanding character, because it troubled your heart and gut and you knew it was wrong, you have exercised spiritual discernment.

These are the ways in which God has given us good brains, how He expects us to use them... and God challenges us to do so much more. Christ uses the word metanoiete when he calls us to repentance. Metanoiete translates from Greek to "Go beyond the mind you have."

Repentance is not about wagging fingers and shaming, like we probably see in our minds when we see all the sign shaking, screaming fundamentalists holding a protest somewhere. Repentance is about changing our minds, and it can be an experience as subtle - and yet literally as illuminating - as flipping on a light switch in a room. God designed repentance to be an exercise in encouragement to stretch us beyond our own limitations, and sometimes, it is not about turning away from sin but a challenge to look at things differently even when we are in a state of grace and good standing with God, so we have the ability to make better changes in the world.

What will you do with the good brain God gave you? If you believe you are junk, what do you need to do to change that? How have you experienced metanoiete, and how will you take advantage of that opportunity to go beyond the mind you have?

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