Moving forward

Even when bad things happen, hope is not in vain

Does it help to know what the brain is doing at times like these? The prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate emotions, is affected, maybe weakened. The amygdala, home of emotions, is over-stimulated. And the hippocampus, which controls short-term memory, plays recent events over and over on an excruciating loop.

Over and over and over.

So, that’s what the brain is doing, up there in what increasingly feels like the swamp of the skull.

And still, the feet don’t want to move forward. It seems that Earth has shifted on its axis, maybe, or started spinning slower or faster or perhaps stopped entirely, and whatever it is, the ground doesn’t feel steady anymore. A forward step might be an inadvertent plunge into the abyss.

Speaking of which, what a time the last few weeks have been. Fourteen dead, including 11 first responders, in West, Texas. Four dead in Boston and a massive manhunt. The horrors of Chechnya revisited. A devastating earthquake — another one, that is — in China’s Sichuan Province. Plus, the drought doesn’t look to be going anywhere, the economy still feels wobbly, the far-off horizon seems obscured by looming dark clouds.

Impulse No. 1: Pull the blankets up and over the head. Take a breath and hold it. Play possum for a while.

Impulse No. 2: Eat the whole cake (like it even matters).

Impulse No. 3: Stare in gape-mouthed horror at the film stuck on mental replay, courtesy of the hippocampus, and panic.

“Our brains aren’t very good at probability and risk analysis,” wrote Bruce Schneier, author of “Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Survive,” for CNN last year. “We tend to exaggerate spectacular, strange and rare events, and downplay ordinary, familiar and common ones. We think rare risks are more common than they are. We fear them more than probability indicates we should.”

But how much does probability come into play when the images are so awful? How nice it would be to approach this capricious world with actuarial reason, but never are human beings so revealed as organic, fallible things, clothed in what Shakespeare called “this muddy vesture of decay,” than when tragedy descends.

“It’s strangers by whom we fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted, when it’s far more likely that any perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend,” Schneier wrote. “We worry about airplane crashes and rampaging shooters instead of automobile crashes and domestic violence — both of which are far more common and far, far more deadly.”

Yes, but who can live with that? Who would ever, ever get in a car, or get married, or go to the grocery store, or have children with the perpetual awareness that life is, at best, arbitrary and all events happen in an indifferent universe?

There never seems to be a satisfying answer to the question of why awful things happen. They just do. People make terrible choices, plates shift, hearts fail, the bad guys sometimes win. Paralysis is the understandable response. When the path is littered with glass, when there’s darkness on either side and darkness ahead, when gravity seems heavier than usual and each new Tweet, each new wobbly cellphone video, each spin of the 24-hour news cycle compounds the weight on already-burdened shoulders — well, in all that, who wants to take a forward step?

And yet.

And yet, that’s the way of things. Feet that don’t want to move forward always, eventually, do.

“The mind is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity,” wrote Samuel Johnson in the March 24, 1750, issue of The Rambler. “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

Psychology and neuroscience and medicine have a lot to say about this, about the brain’s resourcefulness and the body’s resiliency. How a surge of dopamine and serotonin come at exactly the right moment, when things are at their bleakest. How it somehow seems programmed into the human gene sequence to find possibility in a new day. How optimism seems always to rise to the surface of the murk, an inexplicable phenomenon — some might call it a miracle — of existence.

The paths are myriad: prayer, meditation, deep breathing, hedonism, faith in God, noticing that what can be perceived as an indifferent universe can also be an all-encompassing one. Remember that line in “Jurassic Park,” something about how life will not be denied? Well, it won’t.

Bombs explode and yet the lilacs still bloom, a painful incongruity that says something about the life of which all things are a part. Storms rage, the grass grows new and green, and we to see it. Tomorrow, never guaranteed, always seems to come.

“The gloom of the world is but a shadow,” wrote Fra Giovanni Giocondo in 1513. “Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see; and to see, we have only to look.

“Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendour, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty: believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too: be not content with them as joys, they too conceal diviner gifts.

“Life is so full of meaning and of purpose, so full of beauty — beneath its covering — that you will find that earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then to claim it: that is all! But courage you have; and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.”

Whatever it takes, then, the tiniest of hopes, the smallest of possibilities — they are clasped close to the heart with gentle hands, even when the thunder rumbles, especially when the thunder rumbles. Safety is the solid ground beneath our feet, security is all things that are loved and cherished, or even the memory of them.

In 1914, on the eve of the Great War, knowing terrible times were coming, because they always do, British poet Rupert Brooke wrote:

Dear! of all happy in the hour, most blest

He who has found our hid security,

Assured in the dark tides of the world that rest,

And heard our word, “Who is so safe as we?”

We have found safety with all things undying.

The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,

The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying,

And sleep, and freedom, and the autumnal earth.

We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.

We have gained a peace unshaken by pain for ever.

And so hesitant feet take a forward step, and then another, and another. Forward, onward, parting the clouds obscuring the horizon.


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