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When Feelings Are Sovereign: Two Books About the Body

When I was a young girl, I had a phobia of crossing streets. I would avoid it whenever possible, even if that meant walking much farther away. When it was absolutely necessary to cross a street, I would cling to whoever I was with as if my life depended on it.

I was kind of a wimpy kid, so I just figured that this phobia reflected my general cautiousness. Most people were braver than me, I thought.

When I was about twelve, my mom casually referred to a story of how I was almost hit by a car when I was two. I was immediately interested, which surprised my mom because she thought I had remembered it. So she told me the story in detail, of how a car was speeding on a residential street and had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting me. I was fine, but my mom, the driver, and myself were all in tears.

Not long after hearing the story, I realized that my paranoia of crossing streets had disappeared completely. Understanding the cause of the phobia was all my brain needed to get rid of the fear. Though I didn't know it at the time, it was my first experience with the effect that trauma can have on the brain.

I realize that this example of trauma is, relatively speaking, pretty insignificant. The older I am, the more I realize how unusual it was that I grew up in a stable, loving home and rather ignorant of the abuse or neglect that so many children experience.

But becoming an adoptive mom propelled me into the world of trauma and trying to understand it, which is what led me to read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Dr. Van der Kolk delves deep into the research of how trauma (especially in childhood) fundamentally changes the brain. "[Trauma] changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think."

This fascinating book was incredibly useful to me as an adoptive mom, helping me to understand more fully what is going on in my children's brains and what is causing some of their behavior. For example, "Children who don’t feel safe in infancy have trouble regulating their moods and emotional responses as they grow older." Aha! Just that statement alone explains a lot about a child of mine.

This book gave me significantly more empathy towards friends who have experienced trauma. And even though I wouldn't describe myself as a traumatized person, it helped me to understand more about my own emotions. "No matter how much insight and understanding we develop, the rational brain is basically impotent to talk the emotional brain out of its own reality." Yes! I've experienced that.

Interestingly, the author explains that the key to developing emotion regulation is in the physical body--by using the mind to be more aware of what is happening in the body when our emotions are out of control. And that by doing so, remarkably, we can actually re-wire our own brains.

It sounds to me a lot like the "renewing of your mind" in Romans 12:2. This is not a Christian book. But what I found especially interesting is that in trying to explain the mysterious connections between brain/mind/body, the author couldn't help but using (what I would consider) spiritual vocabulary:

"[R]ather than being a passive observer, this mindful Self can help reorganize the inner system and communicate with the parts in ways that help those parts trust that there is someone inside who can handle things."

"There is something very empowering about having the experience of changing your brain’s activity with your mind.”

What is the Self? What is the Mind? It's certainly not a biological entity. Could it be, perhaps, the immaterial Imago Dei, the part of ourselves that the Bible would call the Soul?

This concept also begs the question--if the Soul and the Body, working together, are able to re-wire--literally change the biology--of our brains in order to recover from trauma, then why then does our culture tell us that we must give in to our emotions, "follow our hearts," in order to find personal fulfillment? Why is the key to conquering traumatic experiences lie in connecting our mind with our body, but when it comes to sexuality, personality, and gender expression, we are supposed to ignore our physical bodies?

It was these questions that I took into my next book, Love Thy Body: Answering Hard Questions about Life and Sexuality by Nancy Pearcey.  And I was fascinated by how, even though The Body Keeps the Score and Love Thy Body are written on very different topics and on very different premises, they speak to each other.

Even though Nancy Pearcey never references Dr.Van der Kolk, she takes his concepts to their logical end: If we are able to use our mind and body to change our feelings, why do we consider our feelings to be sovereign in our lives--even over our own bodies?

"The body has become a morally neutral piece of matter that can be manipulated for whatever purposes the self may impose on it—like pressing a mold into clay or stamping Lincoln’s profile on a copper penny," Pearcey writes. She explains how current cultural ideas about unborn life, sexuality, gender, and family all come down to a very low view of the physical body, which leads to an extremely fractured view of the Self....which, ironically, is exactly what trauma therapy strives to fix.

It's interesting how willing I am to apply Van der Kolk's research when I am feeling afraid or anxious, because I want to control unpleasant feelings. But what about happiness that is actually rooted in selfishness? What about jealousy or bitterness--emotions that are easy to relish? If I can use my body and my soul to rewire uncomfortable emotions, why not others as well--emotions that the Bible would call 'sin?' Pearcey writes, "We do not choose our feelings, but we do choose our behavior and identity."

She doesn't parse Scripture in her arguments--that's not what this book is about. She uses biblical worldview--the over-arching, big-picture view of life presented throughout the Bible--to explain the significance of our biological bodies. "In one sense, our bodies even have primacy over our spirits. After all, the body is the only avenue we have for expressing our inner life or for knowing another person’s inner life. The body is the means by which the invisible is made visible."

Pearcey also explains how the roots of the mind-body dualism that is so prevalent in our culture traces back to Rousseau. Worldviews all come from somewhere, and ideas have consequences. She writes, "Humans are not self-creating, self-existent, self-defining beings. We all look to outside sources to inform us about who we are and how we should live. We look for a rule or grid to help us decide which feelings and impulses are good versus those that are unhealthy or immoral and should be rechanneled." Where is my grid coming from? Rousseau? Or the Bible?

I don't fully understand all of this. I am not a doctor or a psychologist or a scientist. I'm just a thinker asking questions. So if you challenge me on these thoughts, I'm not sure I'll have the answers. If this fascinates you, read these books. Seriously, read these books, and read both of them together. Then let's have a conversation.

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