On Politics and Altruism

The Huffington Post has picked up on the clarion call sounded by Judith Herman and others regarding their psychological profile of Donald Trump. Cynics respond that all politicians are power-seeking, and therefore possess significant personality defects. While that may be so, brains do evolve as we mature.

The brain is plastic, and evolves structures as we age that are responsible for socialization. The most evolved structure, which doesn’t appear until most are in their twenties, is responsible for the expression of altruism. Sociopathy (which I see manifested clearly in Trump’s behavior) is the tendency to treat other people as objects. It is indicative of a lack of even the most basic structures of socialization that are entrained with nursing, which delivers the most basic of rewards for collaboration. Forget psychoanalysis: scans of brain activity reveal whether people have even the basic machinery necessary for responsible leadership of others. My guess is that Trump is seriously deficient in that regard.

Louis Cozolino, who teaches at Pepperdine University, also has a practice in psychotherapy that guides adults through experiences that help them to evolve the neurological mechanisms of socialization (see The Neuroscience of Human Relationships). In other words, there are methods for treatment of these disorders, and we should try to educate the electorate to prefer politicians that engage in such counseling. Altruism is the ability to act for the good of others, and is something that everyone should prefer in political leaders.

Of course, the fullest flowering of altruism appears in our great spiritual leaders – those whose service is pursued without any external evidence of seeking for power. It is granted to them by the world they serve. One of my favorite quotes is from Tagore, the educator and poet who was Gandhi’s cultural collaborator:

Power said to the World, “You are mine.”
The World kept it prisoner on her throne.

Love said to the World “I am yours.”
The World gave it the freedom of her house.

In my post Man and Woman, I flirted with the assertion that the capacity to express altruism (characterized as “unconditional love” in that context) is what made Adam and Eve fully human. Conversely, from a psychological perspective, sociopaths are little more than lizards.


When contemplating the selection from among the disciples of the Apostles, Luke records [6:12]:

Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.

Now this is an interesting proposition for prayer: the junior partner in the triune turning to himself for wisdom. Illogical, even bizarre? I can understand it only by assuming that Jesus was a pseudopod emitted from the Holy presence, not in possession of all his spiritual faculties.

Of course, as a demonstration it is instructive to read  of the devotion and trust that Jesus invested in the Father. If he was moved to pray, how should not we as well? And conceiving of him as a man, I would not rue Jesus that comfort.

A common elaboration of the Crucifixion is that it was not just physically agonizing, but also spiritually devastating. We have the great heart-rending cry:

Eloi! Eloi! Lama sabachthani?

[Mark 15:34]

There was no answer, because there could be none. God took on flesh because it was only through flesh that evil could be healed. Once Jesus assumed that burden, it was his and his alone.

The angels cannot change their nature – it is the grace and curse of humanity to possess that capacity. Thus God testified to Cain:

Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.

[Gen. 4:7]

Jesus was the culmination of this seeking after strength. He arose out of a culture devoted to the seeking after purity, and chose to allow sin into his heart so that its consequences could be healed.

The bulk of the BIble demonstrates the difficulty of this accomplishment. The men raised to greatness always struggle with their frailty. Jacob’s lust makes him little more than a seed dispenser to two competing sisters and their handmaids, and his favorite Joseph leads monotheism into subjection to a polytheistic culture. David succumbs to desire, clearing the way for marriage by sending his friend into battle to die, and Solomon again opens the door to polytheistic practices.

This recidivism illuminates the challenge of loving unconditionally: to be merciful is to grant power to those lacking the ability to discipline their behavior. Every parent confronts this in the two-year-old and adolescent, but somehow we believe that grace given by God is proof against this corruption. To the wise, though, the recidivism of the Bible is the greatest possible proof of God’s compassion for us. He pursues the loving embrace even against the evidence of our unfaithfulness.

Of course, in demonstrating the infinite depths of divine compassion, the heroes of the Old Testament are problematical role models. This came to a head in Islam, which largely sanitizes the evidence of personal frailty. A Muslim scholar disputed with me over David’s betrayal of friendship, explaining that the sanitized history was enforced by Muhammed’s (pbuh) son-in-law, Ali, and justified in that opportunists used David’s behavior to justify their own lecherous license.

The consequence of this idealization of Biblical heroes is that the program of monotheistic escalation (the only God worth worshipping is perfect and infinite) extends to the heroes of the Bible. They are no longer human but gods themselves, immune to temptation and error.

So what of Jesus, absorbing the burden of human sin on the cross? We know that he showed reluctance and despair in the event. This supports my sense that divine love comes at the first possible moment. In the New Testament as in the Old, the manifestation of grace is subjected to pressures almost certain to destroy it. Among those are the unfaithfulness of those to whom salvation is offered. Returning to Nazareth early in his ministry, Jesus is astonished by their cynicism, which makes him unable to offer power in any great measure.

So I conclude: as monotheism is the pursuit of a truly human god, in that pursuit Jesus is truly our god, struggling against our sinfulness while healing us so that we may sin again. Paradoxically, as we approach more nearly to his grace, that struggle intensifies. The assault on his virtues are more focused, the wounds more intimate. As God cried out again and again in the Old Testament, would we not expect Christ to be tried by anger and fear?

Even perhaps, at times, to be overcome by human impatience and frustration?

Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

Me, Myself and Christ: Lover of Ideas

If to love something is to seek to strengthen it, then in the period between high school and the World Trade Center attack, my life was devoted to the loving of ideas.

Of course, as an initiate to modern scientific materialism, at first I didn’t see it that way. I was strengthening my brain to ensure my future as a knowledge worker. I understood that when exercised, the tissues of the brain become more densely penetrated with energy-delivering capillaries. Neurons that were stimulated by thinking sprouted dendrites that sought axons, and when those synaptic connections were triggered, new thoughts were born.

I didn’t really begin to examine the detailed operation of my mind until my wife began to get angry with me when I didn’t look at her when she was asking for advice. She was a very ambitious woman, seeking a complex balance in life between competing priorities, and when she brought me a problem I would go into a kind of meditative state. Her words would enter my mind, as though through a gateway into a garden that she could not enter. I would hold them all together, not weighing them, but allowing them to find a balance among themselves. When a pathway through the possibilities became clear, I would focus on the most immediate priority and serialize the procedure that would generate the desired conclusion.

The friendship that I offered to ideas was the maintenance of the preserve in which they organized themselves. I didn’t force them together. I have never been invested in the outcome of the determination. I was interested in the truth that was revealed. When none became apparent, I would produce a plethora of possibilities for my interrogator, intuitively probing for more constraints so that I could produce a definite conclusion.

Most people, of course, found this incredibly confusing.

In the quiet hours alone, I continued to grapple with my growing concerns regarding the stability of our civilization. What I realize now is that I was reaching ever deeper into the space of ideas, and that exploration was allowed because I was trusted. Ultimately this manifested as a terrible intellectual force that simply brushed others aside as I pursued ideas to their conclusion.

The outcome on my professional relationships was distressing. In one case, I had identified a fundamental inconsistency in a design method, revealed only through a seven-step chain of reasoning. I tried to offer this to the lead investigator, who fought me at every step. When I finally wore him out one day and was able to lay out the logic, he broke off with the complaint “If you talk long enough, Brian, you can convince people of anything.” In another situation, a potential collaborator noticed me breaking eye contact when he asked a difficult question. I was looking past the blank wall of the cafeteria into the space of ideas. Intuitively, he tried to follow my gaze to enter along with me, but was rebuffed. And finally in 2005 I had a female sponsor show up in my dreams one night, offering to usher me into the quantum realm. She slipped through the atoms of the wall, pulling me behind her, and I simply bounced off. When she mused “I wonder why that happened,” I realized that I was in possession of a view of reality that led into deeper truth.

In the spiritual awakening that occurred after 9/11, I came to understand just how great a gift I had been awarded by the ideas that accepted my attention. My elder son Kevin gained access to them early in his childhood. Distressingly, he considered that space as a private preserve, and worked systematically to exclude his younger brother. So Greg learned to access ideas through his peers.

As they grew older, I offered them some advice. To Kevin, “Ideas are strongest when they are shared.” And to Greg, “People can introduce you to ideas, but eventually you need to make friends with them yourself.”

While in my childhood I was in awe of the past, I am relieved to say now that I am blessed with the awe of realizing how deeply they have integrated that advice into their lives, and to observe how their moral and intellectual skills mesh to create value in the world. While I try not to impose my expectations upon them, I find through them hope for the future.

Freedom’s Prison

There are two fibers running from our brain to the glands that regulate our fight-or-flight response: one from the ancient reptilian brain and the other from our cortex, the part of the brain that reasons. The cortical fiber is myelinated, so the signal gets to the glands first, and can over-ride the signal coming from the reptilian brain.

Our freedom is freedom from the basic physics and fundamental biology that rules the rest of the world. But too often we turn it around and use it to force the people around us into conditions of poverty, psychological duress and physical hazard that forces them to behave as animals. We maximize our freedom by denying it to others.

Jesus is lord because, confronted by the consequences of the choices made by those most free, the oppressed choose his compassion and strength as a spiritual refuge. He preserves their freedom against those less wise who use power to play at being gods. For that reason, those rescued are loyal to Jesus in eternity. Inexorably, the tyrants turn on each other, creating yet more victims for Jesus to heal and redeem, until all except the most heinous are wrapped in his love.

Soul Bare

Countless wars have been fought in its name. Brave soldiers have sacrificed their lives to protect it. We’ve pawned off our souls to taste it. Yet, it holds us captive. We have cut open the Earth and yanked it from her core. The blood that pours forth, we call freedom.

Can a creation exist separate from the will of its creator? Why then, do we believe that we can thrive independent from the will of our maker?

Outside of our creator’s purpose, we are but walking sandcastles. And is not dust easily swayed by the caress of the wind? Beautiful souls cloaked in flesh, so readily tempted by the elements. Fools we’ve become, dressing ourselves high and mighty in our own concrete beliefs and labeling it freedom.

The liberties that we’ve taken with our lives have served only as a deception to further bind us. We believe that we are…

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Evolving Dementia

My mother spent most of her life supporting families dealing with cancer, but now Alzheimer’s is becoming a comparable epidemic. In 2012, estimates held that nearly 5.4 million Americans had the disease in some stage. The neurological characteristics of the disease include formation of protein plaques in the cranial fluid, which start to develop as much as thirty years before the onset of dementia. In the final stages of the disease, proteins in the neurons themselves begin to tangle, killing the cells and leading inexorably to loss of muscle control and death.

My mother had recorded a Nova special on the efforts of drug companies to develop treatment for the disease. The resources dedicated to the research are impressive – the special focused on three companies running drug trials costing up to $1 billion. The treatments attempt to mobilize the immune system to harvest and break down the proteins that form plaques. Early treatments caused dangerous swelling of the brain. The current generation of treatments avoid that side-effect, but while the special heralded that breakthroughs were possible, to the scientist, the justification for that hope appears incomplete.

The researchers do not hope to reverse the progress of the disease, but hold forth the possibility that treatments may slow the formation of plaques. This hope is inspired by three-year studies that demonstrated that early-stage patients showed 30% less cognitive degradation than observed in patients that did not receive the drug. But Alzheimer’s evolves over decades, and we have no way of knowing whether long-term treatment won’t result in complications that rival the disease itself. Nor, without expensive radiographic imaging of everyone’s brain around the age of thirty, do we have any way of knowing currently who requires the treatment.

Obviously, if we understood why the plaques form in the first place, we might be able to prevent the disease entirely. Given the expense of the research, however, it is obvious that some commercial profit must be generated to keep the work alive. As with diabetes and cancer, long-term drug treatments will generate that revenue.

But can it ever lead us to a cause?

One of the criteria for canonization is proof of a miracle. In the case of Pope John Paul II, one of those demonstrations was the miraculous healing of a nun with Parkinson’s disease, another degenerative nerve condition. Scientists hold that such demonstrations are simple fraud or chance correlation with spontaneous recovery. But if we take spirituality seriously, we might expect that the development of human intellect would create stresses in our physiology that it was never designed to sustain.

As I understand our intellect, the brain is an interface to the world of ideas. In sharing ideas, we build power in them. This power is not held by any one individual, but held in what Jung called humanity’s “collective unconscious.” No other creature had ever created this kind of repository, and so we would not have inherited from our animal predecessors any mechanisms that would protect our brain from direct exposure to such energies.

Consider, then, what might happen if we taught our children that thinking occurs in the brain. Every intense intellectual exercise would intuitively manifest as an attempt to take control of ideas, to force them into the interior of our brains where we can manipulate them most directly. But each thinker that wrestles with ideas struggles against the intentions of other thinkers, creating dissonance and stress in the tissues of the brain. Might this not result in damage to that delicate organ, an organ that never evolved to deal with such strain?

In my own case, when I began to take charge of my mind back in 2002, I had to struggle against corrupt residents. The strain expressed itself physically in my brain as pressure, sensations of heat, and in the most extreme occasion, sounds of the cranial bone cracking. The events that most frightened me, however, involved a sensation of burning in the nerves along my ribs that I found similar to the symptoms of shingles in its early stages. When I realized this, I turned inwards, considering the structure of my mind, and traced the problem to an over-heated section of my brain in the back of my skull. Realizing that my mind was passing energy through tissues not designed to process it, I tried to shift the flow outwards, into the soul that blooms all around me. I felt of shifting of spiritual structures, and over the next few days, the symptoms disappeared.

My belief, therefore, is that even if we figure out how to stave off the onset of Alzheimer’s using drug therapy, our medical science, with its focus on proteins and genomes, will never touch the root cause of our evolving epidemic of dementia. Our subconscious struggle for the control of ideas will simply intensify, and manifest in other forms of disease. No, it is the idea that the brain is the mind that is at fault. Only when we begin teaching people how to manage the part of their mind that resides in the soul will we be able to prevent dementia.