Connecting Two Minds

Hearing that your wife has cancer is certainly not the easiest news to swallow. I spent several days in a sort of shocked state. Both my wife and I did, and we both snapped out of it about the same time, though in completely different ways. I snapped out while sitting on the subway, staring out a window that did a fabulous job of showing me a blur of rock walls. The way it happened made me think back to some psychology I’d read for a paper about a year ago.

Daniel Stern posits one of many psychological schemes for how kids develop. His is kind of unique in that he bases it on the idea of infants developing different senses of self – essentially ways and capacities of understanding oneself and other people. The last state, however, is different in a particular way from the first three. The verbal self, which I honestly think ought to be renamed the symbolic self, is that phase when a child starts to be able to talk or, even a bit earlier, represent things in gestures and symbols of some kind. This is an enormous leap and is what allows us to create language and culture and science and so on. But at the same time, Stern says that it can create a problem, and it’s that same problem that I didn’t realize I was dealing with until the subway.

The verbal/symbolic self allows us to make representations of the world. But now we have two things – we have the world and we have our representations of the world. Sometimes those correlate rather nicely. When you say “couch”, I have a pretty good idea of what you mean. Other times, though, our representations of the world can be dramatically different from the actual world. I posted a while ago about four different basic understandings of God. They can’t all be right, so some of those representations can’t be the same as what they represent. So our verbal/symbolic self can actually be separate and distinct from the rest of our “selves”.

In my case, my collection of selves had things running around that my verbal self didn’t even have a grasp of. In a weird way, I was dis-integrated. If you want to use an old Evangelical buzzword (is it still old? I don’t hear it quite so often in my circles these days), you might say I didn’t have integrity, though it’s a different take than what everyone seems to associate that term with. Part of me was running around with experiences of reality while this other part of me wasn’t participating because I was too scared or too preoccupied.

And as I sat on the subway, it was as if God invited me to bridge the gap. I knew I was afraid, but I hadn’t ever stopped to really do something with it. To be technical, I had an experience, but I had no representation of it. So I (or perhaps the Holy Spirit) asked me to stop and really think directly about what I was afraid of. So I started listing: I was afraid that my wife was going to die. And…

… well, that was it, which surprised me. Not that that wasn’t enough to be scared of, but given the volume of anxiety I was feeling, I somehow expected it to be a longer list.

With that, all of the sudden, I felt much more stable. Not that I was completely fine with my wife having cancer, of course, but I didn’t feel like anxiety was coloring everything. I was okay. Once I was integrated – all my selves together, my whole mind on the same page – I felt all right. And I felt like I had a better grasp on the situation and on myself.

God gave us this gift of the ability to represent our world, but we give in to sin and fear and misunderstanding and end up failing to integrate the world and our symbolic selves. I don’t think this was what James was talking about when he warned us not to be double-minded (Jas. 1:8), but it’s a version of double-minded-ness anyway. Parts of myself weren’t working with the same things the rest of me was.

I suppose it’s a good idea to ask now and then: is there something in me that isn’t integrated with the rest of me? Am I having an experience that I’m not aware of and could become a problem? Is God inviting me to attend to my experience a little more closely and bring my whole self together? Is what I’m experiencing different from what my mind says I’m experiencing? Something to ponder now and then…

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