You Are Here
We are all dropped into this world completely unprepared for the barrage of sensations coming at us. The sudden influx of information, sights, sounds and feelings, does not make any sense. We have flashes of shapes and color, but no sense of direction or time. We are thrust from the silent dark into a bizarre kaleidoscope of experiences that we have no means of processing. Welcome to the World.
Fortunately, our brains are incredible machines. Faster and more efficiently than any computer, we learn to organize the information we are receiving. We learn the precursors of pain and comfort, recognize the behavior patterns of our caregivers and how to get our needs met, which cries will get us food faster, which will get us held.
This training never ends. The more often our brains encounter a stimulus or situation, the more familiar it becomes. It carves a path, much like running water through stone, and the more familiar it becomes the more easily it will flow through its regular channel. We are not, for the most part, consciously aware of this process. You can call your reactions and your thoughts in any given situation "reflexes," or "intuition," or simply write them off to chance, but the truth is that everything we do and think and feel is the direct result of everything we have experienced before.
This is not to say that we are trapped in our current state. Novel experiences offer us opportunities to redirect the flow of information through our brains. We have the ability to take negative associations and thought patterns and push them, little by little, into new channels. We have the capacity to recognize harmful internal processes and develop the tools to carve new paths in our minds. Therapy, drugs, religion, rituals; all of these things are different means to the same end: healing.
Health, especially "mental," "emotional," and "spiritual" health, is experienced in so many different ways that it is no wonder that the world is filled with institutions and schools of thought proclaiming to have found The Way. Over these conflicting certainties, wars have been fought, families torn apart, and individuals left lost and hopeless in the chaos.
No man is an island, despite our efforts at times. Belonging and acceptance are more than just nice feelings, they are psychological needs. On a measurable level, isolation and rejection effect the areas in our brains strongly associated with physical pain. Every single one of us need to feel accepted somewhere. Even if it is by only one other person. Even if that one person is an imaginary friend.
No matter what we have learned, what we practice, or how we have come to define ourselves and our world, there are a few truths common to all of us humans, and these truths probably deserve more consideration than they get.
1. None of us know why we are here. Some of us found faith. Some of us picked a purpose and boldly claimed it. Some of us are on a constant search to make some kind of sense out of this whole life thing, but no matter how sure you are about the meaning of life or how certain you are that there isn't one, no one knows. No one has ever known. This is how faith is able to exist.
2. We don't even know what "here" is. One thing that modern science has afforded us is the vaguest glimmer of all the things we still don't know, and not just about space and life on our planet but about our inner worlds. The mysteries of our mind and the mechanics of perception are being revealed by science in bits and pieces. How much of our environment is objective and how much is a story we've created by stitching together what little fragments of information we are able to perceive is simply not known. That level of ignorance deserves acknowledgement. And respect.
3. Love is a need we all share. Whatever differences we feel, whatever conflicts and wrongs in the world that prevent us from forming bonds with and understanding each other, it remains a fact that we are each one cell of the human organism. We all share the most fundamental of needs and our suffering is the same when we are deprived. Whatever we have done or said, however we voted in the last election and no matter our level of education, we are connected, each of us, to every other one. Even that guy who cut you off in traffic. This means that, like it or not, we have the ability to empathize with all people.
Empathy might be our saving grace as a species. It has the power to negate harmful prejudices that lead to atrocities like genocide and slavery. Empathy can temper violent impulses and compel people to seek solutions to problems that do not have a direct, perceivable effect on them. And, for many of us, empathy is a choice! We have this incredible tool, this amazing power to change the world at our disposal, but we can choose to set it down and let the weeds of resentment and confusion flourish around us. No one can make you care.
But if we can form the habit of grasping that common thread of humanity that connects us all, we will not only be afforded the opportunity to show compassion to our fellow humans, but we will also be able to follow that thread back to the still, peaceful place we all long for in our own ways. It's the peace of being free from anger and conflict and worry. It's the kind of peace that obliterates the rage that boils up inside of you when that oversized pickup almost runs me - I mean, you - off the road and replaces it with the comforting knowledge that the driver, like you and everyone else, is fundamentally a fragile and ignorant soul in desperate need of a hug.
Originally appeared on the Medicine People of the World blog