In 2004, Trish and I began a crash course in applied neurology.

The day began inauspiciously. She would drive downtown to the Salvation Army, where she worked in drug rehab. I would go to the church for a full day of work there.

We walked down the stairs together, passing a little plaque on the landing: I KNOW THE PLANS I HAVE FOR YOU SAITH THE LORD.

Somewhere about noon, I received a call from the Salvation Army. Trish was in an ambulance, on her way to St. Joseph’s.

Within a couple of hours, we went from routine, everyday life to radical reorientation. For ten days, Trish would be in intensive care, unconsciously fighting for her life. Then, rehab. Weeks of therapy followed. We gradually eased into a new routine over the next few months, adjusting to the harrowing world of brain injury.

A handful of years before Trish’s aneurysm, researchers had overturned the previous belief that brains were incapable of extensive change after childhood. What replaced that belief was what we call brain plasticity, the ability of the human brain to ‘rewire’ itself. Thought, belief, attention, habit, and physical movement shape our brains. Therapy therefore restores broken and forgotten patterns of movement and thought, effectively returning patients to themselves.

Trish and I had studied psychology together in the same graduate school, and so were vaguely familiar with the structure and function of the brain and central nervous system. There is, however, a great difference between studying diagrams and photographs, or even in treating the mental illness of another person, and in struggling to recover one’s ability to distinguish reality from imagination.

One of the most disorienting aspects of Trish’s recovery was the disconnection between her two cerebral hemispheres. As her damaged corpus callosum healed (that’s the neurological connector between our right and left brains), she sometimes experienced herself as two people fighting for control of her body. The right brain wanted to wear one thing; the left brain wanted to wear something else. The internal disagreement occasionally became physical – one hand grabbing for a dress as the other hand reached out to physically stop her from completing the action.

In those moments of internal disunion, Trish said it wasn’t as if some unknown person was trying to overtake her. It was as if both persons were her true self but could not be resolved into a single sense of self. It was what we call the “split-brain” patient experience.

Our adventure made a real impact on how I now think about artificial intelligence, robots, and genetic engineering. Gender assignment, pronoun usage, and other current social trends are part of a general upheaval that swirls around the question of what it means to be a person. As our economy becomes ever less personal, our social interactions increasingly governed by machines, and opportunities for face-to-face relationships diminish, we are questioning the uniqueness, and therefore the value, of our humanity. The political left and right each move toward ever more radical directions to address the loss, viewing the other side of the resulting conflict, rather than the underlying common stressors, as the enemy.

Describing the current chaos this way allows us to become compassionate, rather than furious with one another. We are, after all, plunged into a world in which one’s life means less and less. There are few opportunities in the workplace that allow most human beings to feel alive and significant. The realities of the economic system we have embraced have little to no regard for our families, friendships, or community. We must move, isolate ourselves, reinvent ourselves, and, often, lose ourselves, in the sheer quest for economic survival.

In such a world, sexual life becomes a sacrament. Drugs too. Political passion becomes obsessive and manic. Religion becomes about maintaining what is left of one’s tribe, transforming questions of morality, ethics, and metaphysical belief into secondary considerations.
Any shared behavior that reawakens one’s sense of humanity – however bizarre looking from the outside – becomes precious and worth defending.

Christians have never been in greater need of information but never less capable (nor interested,) in acquiring it. The technological, social, and political forces around us are reshaping everything. Some of the reshaping is beneficial –as Trish and I have discovered from the huge advances in medical science. Some of it though is malevolent, threatening every facet of our sense of being human.

Christian faith offers a potential refuge from the approaching maelstrom if, that is, it doesn’t collapse under the unbearable lightness of being it has embraced. Like a recovering stroke victim, Christianity must enter rehab and rediscover itself.

Fighting other people is a distraction we cannot afford. Neither the left nor the right is our problem – things are much, much deeper than that.

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