Sunday, May 18, 2014

What About the Caboose?

May 18, 2014

Dear Friends,

It is truly spring-time—green and full of life—but today I want to think with you about “spring” in the context of an odd aspect of human consciousness. 

When we say that it “feels” like spring, we are reporting more than the local weather. In fact, we are describing an intuitive “knowing”—an immediate experience of wordless, pleasure-shadowed awareness, something sensed as “spring” even while sense data accurately registers the snow that covers the lilacs. 


Limbic system and cortex produce and combine data into a “think/feel " unit. This is knowing that reaches beyond inches of snow or degrees of temperature, although this data too is included. 

Much of the brain’s power and complexity remains a mystery. However, neuroscience now makes clear that “It feels like spring,” is a “whole brain” response, a kind of “thinking” that integrates sense data, meaning and emotional response. It is a knowing in which the sum is greater than the parts.

The reality of “whole brain” responses seems self-evident to most contemporary readers. However, in talking with a young friend this week, I was reminded that this concept of an integrated “whole person” response flies in the face of what was once viewed as established truth. 

Not long ago the common viewpoint of human function was based on the idea that an individual was essentially a package of parts—granted, complex parts in a complicated assembly, but a package of parts, nonetheless. In this paradigm, wholeness became by definition simply the sum of the parts. Part of my early exposure to the package-of-parts idea was through a cartoon-like drawing of a small train that appeared in the religious education materials used in the church I attended. 
In its simplest form the train had only three components: a strong, powerful little engine (clearly kin to The Little Train That Could) that pulled a sturdy box car that was followed by a small caboose. The three parts of the train were labelled in order: FAITH, FACTS, FEELINGS.

I have an amusing memory of one edition of the Faith Train, as my Sunday school teacher termed it, in which the Caboose, in contrast to the Little Engine and the Boxcar, had ridiculously irregular wheels that were oddly shaped and able only with great difficulty to cling to the rails. The whole structure of the Caboose was subtly out of alignment, the windows skewed, and the roof threatening at any moment to detach and fly away. The Little Engine and the Boxcar were earnestly working to pull the train along the Railroad of Life, as the tracks were labelled in the picture, but the Caboose was certainly no apparent help in the process.

I was an imaginative child, but matter-of-fact Bertha, the most prosaic person in the class, reached the same conclusion that occurred to me.

“Engine and Boxcar ought to get rid of that Caboose,” Bertha said thoughtfully. “It don’t do any good and it sure slows them down. They oughta unhook it.”  In Bertha’s point of view, “feelings” could be disposed of with no appreciable loss and possible potential gain.

Bertha (and the Faith Train) reflected both the package-of-parts idea of people, and a simple “rules” picture of life. In this view, the world operates according to principles or rules. For example, there was a rule for apples: apples always fall down, not up, and fall always at the same predictable speed. 

This “rules-view” believed that these principles could be discovered by rational, logical processes. It believed further that when discovered and systematically applied, these principles permitted control of “Nature” and improvement in human welfare. Reflecting this system of thinking, the Faith Train taught, in essence, find the principle (faith), apply it rationally (facts), then good progress in Christian living will result. 

But, argued the apostle Paul, it’s not that simple. In my experience, I find that sometimes I do what I don’t want to do, and sometimes I don’t do what I want—and should—do. What about that issue? 

While the Faith Train lacked the theological complexity of Paul’s objection, it nevertheless acknowledged the awkward reality to which he pointed. Fact (theory, principle) and rational application of fact (Engine and Boxcar) is not, so to speak, all that there is: while feelings may complicate human progress they must be acknowledged. Reality, after all, includes the Caboose.

Much of my blog materials (and all of faith-based living) deal with the complex reality of human responses that are not lineal, logical, linguistically-based, and which at times powerfully defy rational thought. Bertha clearly understood an unsettling reality: affective responses, irrational as they may appear, have the power to derail principle and to defy facts—the Caboose can derail the train. 

Understanding this clear possibility of train-wreck, Bertha suggested a common-sense solution: better unhook the Caboose before the wreck occurs.

There is an appealing simplicity to Bertha’s pragmatic approach to the difficulty. However—as you have no doubt already seen—there is a glitch.

Are people simply parts-in-a-package? What happens when we attempt to “unhook” an aspect of ourselves that brings pain, shame or failure? Or unhook from something that inconveniences our progress toward a goal?

Thinking with you today that wholeness is easier to think than to live.

See you next week. 


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