At a couple different stages in childhood, our brain pruned neurons that were underused. It was creating clearer pathways, concentrating energy, codifying regular patterns. It’s called synaptic pruning (How crazy wonderful is the human brain?! I’m imagining a lumpy gardener with tiny shears.)
What’s done is done. We can’t grow those neurons back. New pathways can still be created with the existing neurons—detours can be made—we can probably get to a lot of the same places in our brains but it becomes definitively slower as possible pathways are limited. The endless possibilities of a child’s brain find their ends. Our conditioning matters for how our brain works for the rest of our lives.
I think this is the same with our spiritual nerve endings. Our hearts are permanently changed by our conditioning. I believe that the tightknit Christian community I lived in as a young child conditioned me for an abiding sense of safety in the faith. If I was born with a special proclivity toward trusting God it was amplified in the security of my formative years. I feel safe with God. That safety allows me to risk more easily in ways that are harder for others.
Others have experienced such an intense breach of trust or such a consistent disappointment from the Church that they are forever damaged. Their spiritual nerve endings were mangled in the difficult relationship and the poor relating of the ones who claimed Christ as Lord. A common reaction to a conflict in the church is to cut and run, and in so doing many have cut themselves—maybe even leaving the part of themselves that was best at connecting with God behind. And now not only are they cut off from that community, they are cut off from God. The isolation that this scenario brings about is the predicament in which many Americans find themselves.
HBOgo.com recently released the Spike Jonez film, “Her”, for streaming. I watched it and was delighted by the parable of modern interaction with technology. Without too many spoilers, because I think it is worth watching, the premise is that in a not too distant future a company produces a computer/phone operating system that can relate and learn. The main character, played by Joaquin Phoenix and named Theodore (which means Gift of God), falls in love with his operating system who names herself Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson. His profession is writing love letters on behalf of others for beautifulhandwrittenloveletters.com. He wonders aloud if he has lost the ability to feel or to relate to anything but a machine. He is separated from his wife who he tried to love but from whom he kept his full self. He is resisting the divorce proceedings in a depressed state. On the way home from work before the OS saves him he tells his phone to play a melancholy song and when it doesn’t suit him he says “play a different melancholy song.”
He is crafting an emotional experience with the technology. His job is manufacturing emotional connection for others. His life’s love is an operating system. His emotional and spiritual nerve endings are shot. His heart is pruned like a 6 year old’s brain.
Do you feel this way sometimes? Does your heart get hard at the sight of the other with whom you have unresolved conflict? Are you waiting for it to get hard and flake off? We’re probably not aware of all the things which fry our capacity to love and trust, but I bet we’re aware of some. Let’s look at them full in the face, feel the pain they cause us, and awaken to the remaining working parts of ourselves.
Lent is a time for this sort of waking up. We flex our spiritual muscles and give our spiritual nerve endings a few laps around the track. We find out what’s dead and we put it to death. We find out what’s still alive and we nurse it back to health. Of course this is the life of a Christian all year, except when it isn’t. I always seem to need something to train for to keep at my disciplines, to keep my eyes open, to keep my heart soft. What better event to train for than resurrection and Easter sunrise?