An article in The New Yorker told of a man who attended a conference in which a certain neuroscientist spoke about the brain. This neuroscientist described humans as beings almost completely controlled by the neural wiring, brain chemistry, and genes within our brains. “The scientist described human beings as creatures driven by deep mechanisms, almost like puppets on strings, not as ensouled human beings capable of running their own lives.”
However, at the conclusion of the scientist’s lecture he was asked how this knowledge of the human brain had changed his life. He gave a surprising answer–this knowledge had caused him to join a folk dance company. He explained:
“I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends. Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it. … I’ve come to think that flourishing consists of putting yourself in situations in which you lose self-consciousness and become fused with other people, experiences, or tasks. It happens sometimes when you are lost in a hard challenge, or when an artist or a craftsman becomes one with the brush or the tool. It happens sometimes while you’re playing sports, or listening to music or or lost in a story, or to some people when they feel enveloped by God’s love. I’ve come to think that happiness isn’t really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year.”
In my studies, my classmates and I are constantly reminded that no man is an island. The systems theory explains that every person has a countless number of connections to systems outside themselves. I have connections with each member of my family, with each roommate and friend I’ve ever had, with the leaders in my religion, with the people I know from high school, with my professors, with the people from my hometown, with the people I’ve worked with, and with countless other people. I even have connections to people who have no connection to me, such as Oprah, J.K. Rowling, and President Obama. It doesn’t matter how much I actually interact with these connections I have formed or if I interact with them at all; it is still a connection, and I have millions–perhaps billions–of them. And each of these connections makes up a part, no matter how small, of who I am and what I do. If something good or bad happens to any one of these connections, I am affected, whether I like it or not. The only way to break these connections is for me to completely forget that the connection ever existed. We are all inherently connected to people.
Another theory I’ve learned about that goes right along with the systems theory is the ecological theory. The idea behind this theory is that human beings have a very intimate two-way relationship with various levels of their environment. The first level is the person’s family and friends, the second level is the community (this includes things like school, work, and church), the third level is institutions (such as the government or economy), and the fourth level is the person’s culture and that culture’s values. Not only does the person constantly influence and manipulate each of these levels of his or her environment, these levels also influence and manipulate the person. It is impossible to completely separate the person from his or her environment because while the environment is influencing the person, the person is simultaneously influencing the environment.
All of this–the connections and environmental relationships–simply happens without us making the slightest conscious effort to make it happen. It’s not something we can learn or forget; our brains do it naturally.
With that in mind, I consider man’s true role in choosing his or her own fate. I have come in contact with many children whose parents chose to do drugs. I think when this behavior first occurred, the parents felt they could contain the effects of the drugs to only themselves. I think they truly believed that no harm would come to their children because of it. I think they believed that doing drugs would not change their connections or their environment. And yet, everything did change. Drugs impaired their ability to care for and interact with their children. They could not contain their drug use to only the first level of their environment and eventually the other levels of their environment noticed what was happening. Most significantly, the legal system noticed. The parents entered the legal system, and the children entered the child welfare system. The parents found themselves in jail, and the children found themselves in foster homes. The parents choice to use drugs not only completely changed their own environment, but it also completely changed the environment of those they were most closely connected to–their children. I do not think this is what the parents had in mind when they first began using drugs. I do not think that they thought to themselves, “I choose to use drugs, hurt everyone connected to me, and completely change my life.”
We have the ability to make a number of choices. But we must not disregard what these choices will do to the connections we have naturally formed, for we have no control over that. As the neuroscientist asserted, every choice we make should nurture those deep, love-filled connections we’ve formed and immerse ourselves in activities we are passionate about, for this feeds the very core of our being. In doing so, we subconsciously create a place in our minds where we can be completely and entirely filled with joy.