- A pastor of a small, obscure congregation hi-jacks the attention of the world with his bad behavior
- Minority groups are being increasingly singled-out, shunned, harassed, deported, caricatured and scapegoated in nations throughout the world.
- The angrier the pundits are - on the right or the left - the more air time they seem to earn.
- One in seven Americans now live in poverty, but they are drowned out by the anger of raising taxes for the rich.
- Pretty much any bad public behavior seems to be in some way rewarded.
- Apparently just about everyone is a modern day Hitler.
Uh, oh. My stomach is churning again.
I'm looking for Jon Stewart: "for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn't be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it's appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles."
Ok, we've known for a long time that the news media, advertising, religion - you name it - gins up fear to grab our attention. They may want to give us information, but keeping our attention is what pays the bills. So they exaggerate small dangers, treating them as if they are national nightmares. But the problem seems to be particularly acute and the behavior particularly destructive in these anxious times.
The thing is there is no magic bullet that will erase our problems or lessen our anxiety. We can be pretty certain that as long as it works, extremism will forget to use its inside voice; Men will be mad - some women too. Those in the world of systems theory who pay attention to these dynamics with an ear toward the common good recognize that the angry, reactive voice has power to misshape our lives and stir up our stomachs. And they understand that the solution, no matter how tempting, is not to yell back. It just won't mend what is broken. We have to take the high road. It is going to take some long, steady and, yes, thoughtful engagement. And that means that it will be up to us to regulate our anxiety and our stomachs as we engage ourselves with a better future.
Peter Steinke looks to physiology to examine this dynamic. He reminds us that all mammals share that bundle of nerve connections at the base of our brains that is totally absent of thought process - the amygdala. It does instinct; it fires our emotional impulses: fight or flight - the reptilian brain.
Then there's the bulk of the brain that fills most of the cranium - the mammalian brain. It seems to be pretty inefficient when you get right down to it - computers are on target to pass up the whole ball or wax in a few years. But it helps us create lasting relationships and families; it makes us playful, gives us voice. That's not too shabby, when you think about it.
And then there's the cortex - the half-inch layer at the top that powers our intellectual activity. Steinke calls the pre-frontal cortex "holy tissue" - that part of the brain that is only fully functional in humans. Others have called it the organ of civilization, the soul's fragile dwelling place. It develops in the third trimester of pregnancy and continues to grow until about age 25. It is the only part of the brain affected by environment and experience.
The left pre-frontal cortex houses our humanity; it allows us to do a few things which make us human:
- It enables us to step back from experience and reflect - to observe ourselves and our environment and to think critically.
- It allows us to exercise social competence, to see beyond ourselves and our own self-interests.
- It allows us to think and imagine.
- It allows us to control and regulate powerful emotional forces such as fear and anxiety.
- Finally, the left pre-frontal cortex allows us to deal with the future, to create scenarios, to plan and imagine new possibilities. It allows advent, hope, baptism, and thanksgiving, promise and tomorrow. In the church, it helps us to remember that we belong together and to behave in ways that make belonging possible.
The thing is, just because we have these centers for deep thought and for nurture and play, we are still capable of behaving in an absolutely "reptilian" manner. Case in point: cable news Barbie and Hitler mustaches photo shopped on anyone with whom we disagree. We might think that unfortunate, but it is what it is, and we still need the amygdala: it stomps on the brake when that driving-while-texting so-and-so cuts us off. But we're going to have to use that pre-frontal cortex of ours if we want to say along with the quiet 75-80% of the population Jon Stewart thinks is out there, "I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler."
Or with that youth in our current Sunday School class who say "I don't want to hear threats or mean words." Or "I need to know that I'm heard and understood." Or the one who asks, "help me be calm and respectful of other people's thoughts and actions." Who is going to exercise that slim part of the pre-25-year-old brain if it isn't us?
Jon Stewart's slogan is "take it down a notch for America." I say, do it for our kids if not for America. Take it down a notch - especially if it helps us understand more deeply what's happening and why and what it might look like for us to follow this narrow way Christians seek to follow that leads us to what we call salvation.
Are you, like me, just a little curious about what goes on behind the scenes? Do you remember those Somali pirates we heard about before? They were pretty exciting when we had stories of danger and heroism to tell. Now they've been mostly upstaged by other more spicy stories but they are still around. Did you ever wonder why they became pirates? A United Nations report and several news sources have suggested that piracy off the coast of Somalia is caused in part by illegal fishing and the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters by foreign vessels that have, according to Somali fishermen, severely constrained the ability of locals to earn a living and forced many to turn to piracy instead.
The threat to curiosity is fear. It can trump all other emotions. But our curiosity can lead us into deeper waters of understanding that just might get us someplace if we give it a chance. We just might be talking about things of the spirit, things of the soul here - the narrow way.
That brings me to my question for you. How do you exercise your curiosity? What do you read to broaden your understanding? I try to read a few papers online. I listen to voices outside of the U.S. for a different perspective. I like to hear from Sojourners because they do a good job of placing current events alongside our scriptures. Giraffe.org is interesting - it celebrates those who have been willing to "stick their necks out" for the common good. What about Al-jazeera.net? Have you ever read it? If not, why not? What harm could a little information, a different perspective do?
I'd love to hear what you read. Who do you talk with that helps you to understand? Would you be willing to "stick your neck out" a little and share? Journalist Barbie might not be listening, but some thoughtful people just might.