Let the live tweeting begin – #AChristmasCarol, viewed through a #BelovedDistance lens

christmas carol start

I’ll be watching “A Christmas Carol” shortly, and tweeting my way through, drawing connections between what’s in the story, and what’s in our nervous system.

As I’ve said before, Scrooge’s transgression is that he refuses to be “synaptic” – he refuses to connect with others across the distance at Christmas time. And when he sees the error of his ways an finds it in his heart to fix that, it resolves the tension that made his whole story possible.

Let the tweeting begin… The full thread can be found here: https://twitter.com/AuthorKLorraine/status/943826918108954624

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Where do we start?

namibia dirt road leading to desert
Like so many other people, this morning, I woke up to news that someone had won a hotly contested political contest, while someone else had lost. Actually — full disclosure — I couldn’t get to sleep last night, until I checked the news and found out what the election results were.

Some people are ecstatic about the results, while others are convinced it’s a sign of the Beginning Of The End. Some are chortling about their victory and pointing out how the losers are scrambling to regroup. Others are voicing various degrees of despair on Facebook.

So it goes. It’s never actually been any different than that for me, in the course of my 50-some years on this earth. I’ve been hearing dire warnings about our inevitable plunge into chaos, thanks to certain sorts of political outcomes. The warnings come from both sides, and they’re so similar, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

It’s not the ideology and the platforms that seem different to me, rather the dire tone each side adopts to compel their constituency (both current and hoped-for additions), to join their side. Join the fight. Join the battle. Everything is on the line.

Again.

To say I’m battle-weary would be an understatement. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’re in a dire situation. I believe we are. I mean, look around — war and disease and pestilence are so common, they’re “old news”. The United States seems in a state of perpetual cultural warfare, with all sides utterly unmoved by the criticisms and complaints of everyone else. People seem to have dug in, and exit polls show how sharp the voting divides are, across race and gender. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of our socio-cultural deep freeze that seems to have completely immobilized us — like a tourist from Peoria frozen with fear as a charging hippopotamus bears down on them. (And yes, hippos are the most human-dangerous land animal in Africa.)

Good grief.

While it is encouraging to see some election results which lean in my preferred direction, the whole process sort of depresses me. Even if “my side” does win, as a whole community we still lose something. Every time we splinter into factions and go at each other over ideology or agenda, we pay a price. Some days, it feels like the only one fretting over the cost, is me.

But I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of people out there who are distressed by the ever-deepening chasms between various segments of our society. Rich vs. poor. Haves vs. have-nots. Whites vs. … er… everybody else. Cities vs. rural areas. Men vs. women. Powerful vs. vulnerable. At every single turn, it seems like we’re splintered along identity lines. And where identity isn’t clearly marked, people seek to create new categories that set them apart.

All this separation. Sigh.

And yet… Is the real problem separation? I’m not so sure. Indeed, I think the real issue is that we don’t really know how to work effectively with separation. We tend to see it as a barrier, and little else. Of course, separation divides us. That’s the point. That’s why we turn to it — specifically because it divides us, it separates us out. And there are a bunch of advantages to that, which I discuss in Beloved Distance. A sense of belonging. A sense of safety. Knowing whom to trust. Knowing whom to avoid. Separation is one of our most valuable tools, and yet it seems to be wreaking havoc with our world.

Seems.

And yet, I have to ask — Isn’t there more to the story than just division? Isn’t there more to our experience than schism? Might our separation actually offer us something we need, both in terms of division and connection? Are we missing something?

I think, yes.

I think we’re missing a lot.

And because of that, we’re losing out on clues about how we can move forward.

By having this one-sided view of things, and not understanding — really understanding — what’s at work in our world, as well as deep within us, we’re passing up an amazing opportunity to step forward and head down a path that may not be all that clear and well-marked, but is still a path forward.

We don’t even have to know exactly what’s to come, or exactly how we’re going to get there. We just need to know that the path exists, and that we have the in-born capacity to really make the most of that path.

You can see current events as a scourge or a gift. I choose to see it as both. And I’m determined to find out how we can make the most of the whole range of these experiences we’re having. I have some ideas about how we can do that.

Watch this space. More to come.

 

“Perceiving at a Distance” – The Conference that kicked off Beloved Distance

stone building with archwaysBack in February, 2016, I was roaming around the web, looking for interesting subjects to read, study, explore. I was particularly interested in neuroscientific and philosophical topics, and I came across mention of a conference called “Perceiving at a Distance”, to be held in Antwerp, Belgium the following June. As I read through the Call for Papers, and I explored the (now defunct and re-absorbed into the forgetful vastness of cyberia) it occurred to me that I might write something on “the fundamental ubiquity of distality”.

Huh?

Well, why not? I’d been fascinated by the nearly impossibly small gap that separates each of the trillions of chemical synapses in our bodies and brains. And I’d been doing a ton of thinking about it. Noodling about it. Pondering it. Exploring the concept spatially and non-verbally, as well as in my own written notes. It had been some 3 years, since I’d clued into that, and I thought for sure I had something interesting to contribute to the conversation.

Namely, that as uncomfortable as it might make us, the basic nature of our existence is separateness. Everywhere you looked, everywhere you searched, you’d find distance — distality. On the outside. On the inside. It’s everywhere.

Yeah! The fundamentally ubiquitous distal nature of human existence.

What’s not to love?

So, I outlined a paper.

And I sketched it out.

And I filled in the gaps.

And the more I explored it, the more I realized was actually there. I was onto something, but I’d just begin to scratch the surface.

So, I kept reading. I kept writing. I kept thinking. June approached, along with the CFP deadline. June passed, along with the deadline, but by that time I was in too deep… in too far… and I still had a ways to go.

It’s a pity the materials from the conference aren’t still online. I think I have a soft copy of them somewhere. But there’s also New Directions in the Study of the Mind is a new research project at the Faculty of Philosophy in Cambridge, supported by the John Templeton Foundation. And as I recall, I spent a fair amount of time on that site, reading what they had to offer, so if you’re so inclined, you might want to pay them a visit, too.

Anyway, time passed. The book concepts developed. The ideas gelled. And now I’m less than six weeks away from publication of a book that sprang from that original thought — that distance is very much a part of who and what we are… and rather than it being a bad thing, it can actually be a very good thing.

I’ll be posting pre-order links for the book in the coming week or so. Watch this space, to reserve your own copy of Beloved Distance.

Coming in January.

Which is sooner than it seems.

Have Yourself A Very Synaptic Holiday Season

network of nerves

When we think of our nervous system, a lot of us tend to think of it as a continuous, connected network that seamlessly transmits information immediately from the experienced sense to the brain and back again. When you step barefooted on a pointy building block at 11:00 p.m. when you’re turning out the lights to go to bed, or you brush your hand against soft fabric while you’re shopping for a coat, the experience is so immediate, it’s easy to think that the neurons transmitting the info from your skin to your spinal column and/or brain and back to your muscles are directly connected to one another.

One would think it’s true. Even Camillo Golgi, the scientist who won the 1906 Nobel Prize for coming up with the staining technique to let us actually see neurons, believed the nervous system was just like the vascular system — a continuous, undifferentiated network that had no gaps. In fact, he devoted his whole Nobel Prize lecture to explaining about how the “Neuron Doctrine” — that all our nerve cells are separate and distinct entities — couldn’t be right. His co-winner of the Nobel Prize, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was a proponent of the Neuron Doctrine, didn’t use his time shooting down his rival, but simply talked about “The structure and connexions of neurons“.

History showed who was right — Cajal and others who agreed with him, with their counter-intuitive conviction that our nervous system had to be comprised of separate cells.

Indeed, our nervous system is comprised of billions of individual nerve cells (neurons), which aren’t actually in direct contact with each other. Oh, sure, in some cases, the connection is direct — individual neurons can be connected in electrical synapses, where tiny proteins join them at “gap junctions”. But for chemical synapses (the vast majority of the connections between neurons), there’s a tiny gap that is never actually connected.

Think about that for a moment. (It’s fun! I’ve thought about it for a number of years, now, and it never ceases to amaze me.) The vast majority of our nerves aren’t actually in direct contact with each other… Hmmmm… But they still manage to do their jobs getting sensory data — and more — back and forth in a dizzying, complex system of sending, receiving, decoding, and acting on signals. There’s all this electricity… all this chemistry… time, space, quality, experience… kicking of thousands, even millions of interactions, each living moment of our lives.

That’s amazing.

So, what does this have to do with the Holiday Season?

A lot, actually.

See, synapses are the connections — the bridges — which join all our disconnected neurons. And although they may be minuscule, they are incredibly powerful in their ability to connect. They’re built to connect, in fact. Their purpose is to bring together separate entities — axons and dendrites, for example — and get them “talking” to each other.

The fact that I’m writing this — and you’re reading it — is evidence of how well they’re working. Even if you’re not totally on board with what I’m saying, the fact that you differ tells us that your synapses are doing their job extremely well.

So, yeah. The Holidays. They’re a time when usually separate people come together in season-specific ways — families, friends, co-workers gather for meals and gift exchanges. We reduce the separation between ourselves with parties and get-togethers and reunions, and we connect in ways that are a bit different from our usual means.

We build special kinds of “bridges” in the Holiday Season — ways we can be more in sync with each other, exchanging presents to show we care enough to think about what would make someone else’s life a bit better. We donate presents, money, food, clothing, to put joy and comfort just a bit more within reach for complete strangers.

In many ways, the Holidays make us about as synaptic as we can be. And those who withhold, who don’t lend their support, are viewed as the exception rather than the rule. Ebenezer Scrooge is a quintessential example of the anti-synaptic human. At the time when the most connections are being created, he refused to participate… until he was brought back in line with a series of disturbing and alarming experiences.

Ultimately, he got back in line with the rest of humanity and did his part — even moreso. And there was great rejoicing.

The same thing happens in real life — on a micro and macro scale. We see the same dynamics that animate our cells, bringing this time of year to life. There’s correspondence. There’s similarity. Perhaps we feel that so deeply about hour holidays specifically because of the similarities to our most intimate inner processes.

In the spirit of the electrical-chemical-electrical sensory transmission process, I wish you the most synaptic of Holiday Seasons.

Everybody wants to connect

woman at festival with crowd behind her

And rightly so. Being with others makes us feel safe, secure. Community anchors us in the midst of a confusing and overwhelming world. Having others around us, orients us to what matters to them, and what matters to us. And if we’re paying attention, we can usually learn something new from people we talk to.

Even strangers.

Especially strangers.

I have to say, some of the best discussions I’ve had with people have been with people I’ve never met before. I find it easier to talk to them, than a lot of other people, at times. There’s no emotional baggage, there’s no interpersonal history to contend with, there’s just two people filling the space between them (for however long) with ideas and information (for whatever purpose).

Last week, in fact, I had a great conversation with the car dealership shuttle driver who was giving me a ride home while my van was being worked on. We’d never met before, and we’ll probably never cross each other’s paths again, but we had a great discussion about the area we lived in, its history, and routes we drive (or avoid) for our commutes.

You wouldn’t think it was such a life-changing experience, but it was genuinely a great time — lots of interesting info and tips exchanged, ideas swapped, jokes told… Come to think of it, that was the kind of conversation that makes a real difference. It was the kind of exchange that enriches your life and also gives you valuable context for the world you live in. Learning more about the area you  moved to… getting inside information on what roads are terrible at what time of day… finding out about what’s going on in the area…

Yep, those actually are life-changing experiences.

And we need them. We crave them. So much, that we’ll go out of our way to find them, and we’ll seek them out some more.

When the shuttle driver dropped me off, he asked if I needed a ride back to the dealership to pick up my car at the end of the day. I told him no, I had already lined up a ride.

I was good.

What makes us… what shapes us

152378-155873Deep within our neuroanatomy, we can – and will – find the elements of the rest of us.

What makes us within, shapes us without.

And what shapes us from without, forms us within.

The patterns we find outside of us, often mirror the processes we have within us.

Looking within, we can learn a lot about what’s well beyond.