All the “Yes” you will ever need

I have been thinking this year about the Resurrection.  There is no way to avoid it, really, because at the First Presbyterian Church of Portland, Oregon (hereafter, “my church”) Easter is not a “day,” it is a “season.”  So on Easter day, when everyone else is wrapping up the celebration [1], we are just beginning “the Easter season.”  So the choir sings Easter-themed anthems and the congregation sings Easter-themed hymns and there are Easter-themed sermons and all that while normal people are drifting on to Pentecost.

So there is no way I can not think about the Resurrection.  But this year, I have shifted consciously over to the experience of the disciples, who gave the whole show up for lost and then were persuaded that it wasn’t.  And that it never had been.  The end of the show, which they so mourned, was just the intermission and if they had read the program carefully, they would have known that (see Luke 24:32).

Looking back, I am amazed that it took me so long to get here.  What chance, after all, do I have to grasp the experience that the risen Jesus has had?  The attention gets focused on Jesus very naturally because what God did for him (see Acts 2:36) bears very strongly on beliefs that are central to the church. [2]  But once you start thinking about what it must have felt like to discover that it was all true after all, you gravitate quite naturally to the experiences of the disciples, who were the  people who had that experience.

So today, I want to put two accounts on the table for our common inspection.  One is scientific and draws on some recent discoveries in neuroimaging. The other is Stephen King’s  Hearts in Atlantis, which actually is a good book, although that’s not why I’m offering it to you.  But let’s start with the science.

An emotional portal

There is no way we can study the Resurrection, but we have spent quite a bit of time and invested the lives of innumerable grad students in studying what it means to “experience” something.  I was one of those grad students, after all.

I admit that the neurology I read was oriented to non-neurologists. In other words, I know enough to appreciate the argument, but not enough to make it.  

Which brings me to Kelly Lambert’s 2013 article in the New York Times.  I am going to come, in a moment, to her account of  how she preserved the experience of Christmas for her kids, but I want to begin with the work of Pascal Boyer.

Pascal Boyer, a professor of memory at Washington University in St. Louis, differentiates between what he refers to as episodic memories — the first time we sat on Santa’s knee or the year a blizzard knocked out the electricity — and mental time travel memories, or M.T.T. 

lambert 1These come closer to re-experiencing a remembered event. Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled — presumably after being triggered by familiar sights, smells or sounds — emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories.

I don’t respond very well to expressions like “mental time travel,” especially when we are talking about the results of neuroimaging, but the idea that sometimes you can recall an event in a way that causes you to “relive” the feelings you had at the time of the event.  That’s what it means to say that the areas of the brain that cause us to experience emotions (not just visceral reactions) bring the feeling of the experience back, not just the meaning of it.

And what does that have to do with Kelly Lambert, neurologist and mother?

So, although I was in mom-mode and not neuroscience-mode when I came up with that cockamamie story about Santa’s bad back, [3] neuroscience research confirms the benefits of trying to assure that my girls have an emotional holiday portal  [bold font not in the original] for their future adult brains. I believe this is just as important as their childhood vaccinations — as it is for all children, whether their memories are of Christmas or of other celebrations and traditions.

An emotional portal.  These early experiences preserve access to the part of the brain that will reconnect with the experiences.  This is different from remembering what you used to do at Christmas when you were kids.  This is reclaiming some of the buzz you had when you did it as kids.  These are the feelings that “belong with” the meanings of the experience. [4]

Note that nothing about the operation of this “emotional portal” bears on whether the event is true or false.  It has to do with whether you have access to the emotions that belong with the event.  This can have to do with what events the smell of a baseball glove bring back to you or the shaft of sunlight that picks out the one grove of scarlet oaks in a cluster of fir trees or the feel of silk under your fingers.  Those events may be artifacts of your distant recollection or they may be brought back as a powerful emotional experience depending on whether you have an “emotional portal” that lets you experience them again.

So it isn’t about true or false; it’s about distantly remote or vividly present.

There are several accounts in the gospels in which Jesus’ disciples “experienced” the “alive again after his death” Jesus. [5]  It was a really powerful experience for them.  Twenty centuries later, is it going to be a distantly remote “experience” for Christians who for whatever reason have allowed that emotional portal to close.

If the portal has closed, I think it is just shut off to you.  You can read about an event and feel a great affinity for it and approve of it and “believe in” it, but you can’t go back and use the neurons that long ago shut down from lack of use.  What I understand about Lambert and the “emotional portal” is that you can keep those neurons from shutting down from lack of use and that is what she was doing for her kids.

“He remembered me.”

How to tell you about Stephen King’s book?  Bobby Garfield develops a very strong relationship with an old man, Ted Brautigan.  At the end of the story about the two of them, Ted is captured by “the Low Men,” and taken away to serve “the Red King” as a Breaker. [6]  Bobby goes into a protracted tailspin, which gets him several terms in the Juvenile Correction facility.  Ted is gone and Bobby has turned bad.

Bobby’s time in juvenile corrections isn’t the only indicator of how deeply broken he is.  He has so fully rejected his mother, that when she threatens him (in a parental sort of way) he rejects her completely.  Here’s what that looks like.

Liz (Bobby’s mother) stood weeping in the doorway as Officer Grandelle led Bobby to the police car parked at the curb. “I’m going to wash my hands of you if you don’t stop!” she cried after him. “I mean it! I do!”

“Wash em,” he said, getting in the back. “Go ahead, Ma, wash em now and save time.”

But when he gets home from the corrections facility, there is a package waiting for him and it is from Ted.  In the package are rose petals.  Here they are.

There was no letter, no note, no writing of any kind. When Bobby tilted the envelope, what showered down on the surface of his desk were rose petals of the deepest, darkest red he had ever seen.

Heart’s blood, he thought, exalted without knowing why. All at once, and for the first time in years, he remembered how you could take your mind away, how you could just put it on parole. And even as he thought of it he felt his thoughts lifting. The rose petals gleamed on the scarred surface of his desk like rubies, like secret light spilled from the world’s secret heart. 

Not just one world, Bobby thought. Not just one. There are other worlds than this, millions of worlds, all turning on the spindle of the Tower. And then he thought: He got away from them again. He’s free again. 

The petals left no room for doubt. They were all the yes anyone could ever need; all the you-may, all the you-can, all the it’s-true.

That’s the experience.  It is not the explanation.  But Bobby has an explanation of sorts.  It is this.

Ted was free. Not in this world and time, this time he had run in another direction .. . but in some world. 

Bobby scooped up the petals, each one like a tiny silk coin. He cupped them like palmfuls of blood, then raised them to his face. He could have drowned in their sweet reek. Ted was in them, Ted clear as day with his funny stooped way of walking, his baby-fine white hair, and the yellow nicotine spots tattooed on the first two fingers of his right hand. Ted with his carryhandle shopping bags.

And finally, this.

He sat at his desk for a long time with the rose petals pressed to his face. At last, careful not to lose a single one, he put them back into the little envelope and folded down the torn top.

He’s free. He’s . . . somewhere. And he remembered.

“He remembered me,” Bobby said. “He remembered me. 

That experience and the explanation Bobby provided for it changed his life completely.  We learn about that in one of the later short stories that make up the remainder of the book. [7]  But there is also an immediate effect.  After he  gets the great gift that the rose petals have for him, he reaches out to his mother.

He got up, went into the kitchen, and put on the tea kettle. Then he went into his mother’s room. She was on her bed, lying there in her slip with her feet up, and he could see she had started to look old. She turned her face away from him when he sat down next to her, a boy now almost as big as a man, but she let him take her hand. He held it and stroked it and waited for the kettle to whistle. After awhile she turned to look at him. “Oh Bobby,” she said. “We’ve made such a mess of things, you and me. What are we going to do?”

“The best we can,” he said, still stroking her hand. He raised it to his lips and kissed the palm where her lifeline and heartline tangled briefly before wandering away from each other again. “The best we can.”

Bobby’s Portal and Mine

In this last section, I am going to describe the neurology I got from Kelly Lambert as it applies to Bobby Garfield and me.  It’s easier with Bobby, partly because he has a world class author to bring him to life and I have a few autobiographical speculations.

Bobby experienced the truly uncanny in Ted.  Sometimes it was wonderful; sometimes it was awful.  But it was all extremely powerful and when it all crashed into meaningless disaster—the Low Men captured him and took him away— Bobby crashed as well.  “All that” was over.  Everything he invested in was gone and the person Ted had enabled him to be was gone as well.

lambert 4But it wasn’t losing Ted that did all that to Bobby.  It was knowing that what seemed to be true while he was learning from Ted, had all been fraudulent.  The strong did as they chose after all.  The world was only predators and prey.  Even revenge, which Bobby indulged in, didn’t bring meaning back.  That being the case, there was no reason not to beat the kid up and steal his guitar and no reason not to break into the convenience store for cigarets and beer and no reason not to decisively cut off his relationship with his mother.  Here, from the movie version are Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan and Anton Yelchin as Bobby.

What the rose petals did for Bobby was to take that old time, the time when Bobby thought life was meaningful and he was a good person, and say that it was true.  It was true then and it is still true now, despite the current difficulties.

The rose petals are all the “it’s-true” anyone could ever need.  That deals with the facts.  The rest deal with the implications: the petals are all the yes and all the you-may and all the you-can.

And all those meanings are rooted in Bobby’s understanding that somehow, Ted was lambert 2again free and in his freedom, Ted had sent this to Bobby.  And the relationship Bobby thought he had with Ted and then despaired of; that relationship is back.  He is free and he remembered me.

I’ve never had an experience like Bobby’s, but I think that, had I been one of Jesus’ disciples, I would have felt the way they did.  They said, meeting a stranger on the road (see Luke 24), “ But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel…”  That period of trusting is over.  We “had trusted,” but obviously, we don’t anymore.  The two pictures in this section are the Emmaus road scene as I picture it with the emotional portal and then without it.

This Jesus was a prophet mighty in word and deed and we thought at the time that it meant something.  Now we know and everyone knows, that it did not.  Like Bobby Garfield, it isn’t that their present day hopes are dashed.  The crucifixion showed everyone that it never meant anything at all.  Jesus’ enemies are celebrating and the initially interested have gone back to “real life” and Jesus’ disciples are reduced to saying things like, “we had been hoping.”

And the sudden appearance of the risen Jesus with them at dinner didn’t mean that the situation was about to get better.  It meant that Jesus’ life had always meant what they had thought; what they wanted to be true had always been true. 

lambert 3And that is my portal.  I can read the post-resurrection stories as well as anyone.  I can try and fail to understand what the experience of resurrection could possibly mean.  I can lock the formal meaning of the Resurrection into the doctrinal orthodoxy which is so important to the Christian church.  But when I read this passage from Stephen King, I simply sat down and cried.

I felt what it meant to them to have given up on it and then to discover, to know that they were right all along.  And they can continue to be the people they once thought they could be, back when they thought it was all trur.

That is the experience I can have.  The neurons I need to experience that again were not, apparently, destroyed.

And now I get to cash in on a distinction that might have seemed a little too fine to you, back when I introduced it.  Here’s what I said.

So it isn’t about true or false; it’s about distantly remote or vividly present.

The distinction, remember, is not between true and false.  That’s not what the portal does.  It is between what is distantly remote, only a memory,  and what is vividly present.  The fact that this experience seems present and vivid to me is no guarantee that is what historically true. “Truth” travels a different road entirely.  But to experience vividly the return of the disciples’ hope and my hope as well, is a crucial resource for living the kind of life I want to live.

[1]  No reason to consider this necessarily a religious celebration.  I am thinking of Easter eggs and new clothes, and, why not, a new pickup truck to celebrate Jesus’ transcendence of death.

[2]  The Incarnation, which “my church” celebrates at Advent and the Resurrection which we celebrate at Easter are the two historical events that the church cannot give up and still be the church.  Giving up the “water into wine” trick is a small thing by comparison.

[3]  One year, her children discovered their Christmas presents hidden in the attic.  No problem.  She told the kids that Santa was having back problems this year and had contacted all the parents whose kids were expecting bulky gifts so that he could send the presents ahead of time by UPS.

[4]  Which is also the reason that I have labored manfully in recent years to bring back the word “orthopathy,” to mean “having the feelings that belong to  your understanding of the event.” Not much luck so far, but I’m still at it.

[5]  “Resurrection” is an explanation for what the disciples experienced.  The clunky phrase I used here is what they actually experienced.

[6]  A whole cosmology would have to be developed to say just what “a Breaker” is and why “…there are other worlds than this, millions of worlds, all turning on the spindle of the Tower.”  For our purposes today, being “taken away” by the Low men is like being crucified and “turning on the spindle of the tower” represents other modes of being and consciousness.  Stephen King never has any need of the full cosmology and doesn’t really care that we might like to know more.

[7]  Especially the last one, which is called “Heavenly shades of night are falling.”  The first one, where the story of Bobby and Ted is told, is called “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” which is set almost forty years before “Heavenly shades…”  

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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