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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Arriving at...

Wit's End

It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
Wendell Berry

We modern day humans rely heavily upon our cerebral cortex to guide us—it is the seat of what we call higher functions—language and ideas, justification and planning. It houses our learned intelligence, our skill-sets, our ability to follow instruction and direction. It's frequently referred to as “gray matter,” and humans seem to have more highly developed gray matter than most other animals, though we can't say that for certain.

We've come to rely upon our higher functions so much that we forget there are many layers to the brain; older and non-verbal layers that function every bit as well and just as much as our cerebral cortex. The hippocampus, for instance, lies deep inside the brain and is part of the limbic system. It stores memories and connects them with the senses and the emotions. It is the hippocampus that associates the smell of cinnamon toast today with the memory of our mother making it for us as children—it can spark specific memories that we thought we had forgotten. Sometimes those memories are attached to strong emotions. We hear a piece of music and become suddenly sad, or see an image that brings tears to our eyes, but we don't know why. These are old brain functions. We share them with other animals.

Just as with other animals, we are territorial, protective of our clan, and, if need be, aggressive. We aren't that different from, say, a mother grizzly bear with cubs, or our paleolithic predecessors. We are tribal, and identify strongly with our land. These things have not changed, and if push comes to shove, they play an ever more prominent role in our daily lives. But, unlike a mother grizzly, we also have those higher functions of humanitarianism, altruism, and compassion. We can choose to override our instinctive response to perceived threat and instead of striking out, we can reach out. We can negotiate and mediate.

Sometimes, however, we reach the limits of what our cerebral cortex has to offer—we don't know what to do, we can't come up with a plan, or talk our way out of a situation. It's disorienting not to depend on our gray matter to solve all our problems, because our ego-selves are identified with that part of the brain. When it happens, we say we're at our “wits end”—and we are. We experience it as a bad place to be, when in fact, it may be a good place to be. It may be the point at which our very limited intellect steps aside, and our very expansive soul steps in. When we reach our wits end, we may just be at our heart's beginning.

                                                              In the Spirit,


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