I received a call at 10:30 one night from the hospital where I was working. A 52-year-old man had been admitted earlier in the day so he could be prepared for a relatively minor surgical procedure scheduled for the next morning. And now he was crying uncontrollably — absolutely uncontrollably, with loud groans that traveled through the hospital wing.
As I drove to the hospital, I reflected on the brief time I had with this man only six hours earlier. It was the first time I ever immediately identified someone as a man’s man. He was affable, kind, tough, muscled from work. He had once cut off most of a finger on a bandsaw, finished the project, and then picked up the finger and drove himself to the hospital, telling his wife that he “had to go out for an hour or so.” I didn’t expect him to be wailing at the thought of a morning procedure.
By the time I arrived, the wailing had largely passed, but the sobs persisted. When I tried to get some idea of what he was experiencing, all he could say was, “I don’t . . . know why . . . I’m crying.”
Why Am I Crying?
What was causing this grown man to weep? A sedative that he was given at 9:30 that night, which was standard procedure for the hospital at that time. After a few hours, he was back to his normal manly self, though a bit embarrassed.
“The brain, when it is a little off, can make us feel and think in ways that are untethered to the condition of our souls.”
Here is why this is important for us. The brain can disrupt our emotions and thoughts. In this case, medication had temporarily altered an otherwise healthy brain, leading to unpredictable emotions. The brain can change our emotions such that those we express do not match our real concerns or lack of concerns. We could state this another way: the brain, when it is a little off, can make us feel and think in ways that are untethered to the condition of our souls.
This, of course, is a time for theology to be put to work. And the relevant piece of theology is that we are embodied souls.
Unwrapping Soul and Body
Most of us would agree that we are body and soul. The first answer in the Heidelberg Catechism includes, “I belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” The Philadelphia Confession of Faith declares, “The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them” (32.1). The apostle Paul wrote, “Though our outer self [our body] is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). We are created as two substances that belong together, though in death they are capable of separation. The challenge is to unwrap the implications of this for daily life.
The soul (or heart) has rightly been the emphasis in our theology. Here Scripture gives details that we could never see apart from God’s revelation to us. In the soul, we know God and turn toward him or away from him. Look for obedience or disobedience, faith or unbelief, and you will see the soul in action.
The body, on the other hand, is our material being — muscles, bones, neurons, and all things seen. It mediates rather than produces the intents of our soul. In other words, if the technology were available, we could see both idolatry and faith rendered in the physical activity of the brain, though we would not say that the brain caused either one. (In terms of Aristotle’s four causes, the brain is the material cause while the soul is the final cause.) The body and brain have not been tasked with our moral and spiritual direction, though the brain directly affects our capacity to think, plan, and feel. Watch the body in action, and you will see strengths and weaknesses, health and sickness, pain that wants relief.
This is where we want to settle in for a moment. We live in an era when we have increasing access to details about physical weaknesses and disabilities, especially those that find their source in the brain, and it is worth catching up on some of them.
Your knowledge of the brain already has a number of details. You may have witnessed dementia. If so, you have noticed that dementing adults gradually lose their ability to remember the events of the day, yet they still recall what they wore on their first day at school. As the disease progresses, their memory loss seems to reach further back as months, and then years, are gradually wiped away. When a dementing parent doesn’t recognize you, at first you might mislabel this as lack of love, but your intuitive understanding of the brain assures you that there is nothing intentional in the un-remembering.
“The more accurately you understand brain weaknesses, the more patient you will be.”
Insights about the brain are most important when the other person’s brain is very different from your own. If you couldn’t sit still as a child, and math was your archnemesis, you likely will be patient with a child who is wired in a similar way. But if focus, concentration, and math were natural for you, you might assume that they are natural for everyone else, and respond with impatience to a child whose strengths lie in other areas.
Patience — the first of the apostle Paul’s descriptions of love (1 Corinthians 13:4) — is in the balance. The more accurately you understand brain weaknesses, the more patient you will be.
Our Complicated Care
Now, go back to the man who cried. The brain mediates scores of abilities, among them the abilities to think and feel, along with their innumerable components. Most often, those thoughts and feelings accurately represent our fundamental intents and our responses to the world around us. If we identify a threat, we have our reasons, and we feel afraid. If there are no apparent threats, we expect that our brain and body would be at rest. But the brain can have a life of its own. We can be enjoying an evening off or just waking up, having no particular thoughts, and the brain can attack us with overwhelming anxiety. In a similar way, the brain can push our emotions down and leave them there, which is what can happen with depression. The man who cried reminds us that the brain has its hand in all our emotional responses, and it is capable of muting, exaggerating, or even manufacturing them.
Here is another example of how the brain can affect behavior. Let’s say that a friend overhears you mention a minor problem with your car, and he volunteers to fix it without cost. You are grateful — until you notice that he has left orphaned auto parts all around the car, and now it must be towed to a qualified mechanic. The friend’s problem is clear: he violated “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’” (James 5:12). You have overlooked, however, his brain injury from a severe biking accident. Such a brain weakness can cause people to overestimate their abilities. They might say yes to a job because they think they are qualified, but they don’t have the skills to complete it. In this friend’s case, he is guilty only of generosity and wanting to help.
Or consider the person who seems hopelessly self-centered. The world, you observe, exists only from her vantage point. She is without empathy and compassion. Empathy, however, depends on a person’s ability to move into the world of another and try to understand life — to feel life — from that vantage point in order to offer wise and compassionate help. But what if this woman rarely feels anything, and she is simply unable to understand the inner world of someone else because it is so foreign from her own experience? Empathy is a complex process that some can perform well and some not at all. Those who are weaker in this ability can seem to violate the commands to love, but the problem may be unrelated to matters of the heart.
In a similar way, paranoia and schizophrenia can leave people prone to bizarre interpretations of life, in which everything becomes a personal message. Their behavior might look like egoism or believing lies, but it reflects a brain that is weakening or experiencing a temporary storm.
Patience and the Privilege of Knowing
Your mission is to add to your understanding of what the brain can and can’t do. It cannot make you sin, and no medication can fill you with faith. It can make life confusing and miserable for the affected person and those around him. You want to be alert to moments when the body and brain, which are usually in the background when we care for each other, deserve special attention. Humility that seeks help is required in this process of discernment. Patience and the privilege of knowing someone accurately is its reward.