Love is Good for the Brain

adult anger art black background

When I bumped into a friend at the local bakery, it was the week approaching June 30, 2018. I planned to participate in an ecumenical “liturgy of lament” in my small coastal community in solidarity with protests happening across the country over family separations at the border. I thought this friend, being a sociopolitically-active progressive Catholic, would be interested, so I invited her. Yet her reaction surprised me. She didn’t want to participate in anything about lament, she said, anything that wasn’t about action. And besides, some of the people involved did not fit into boxes she could affiliate with at the moment. In lieu of all that had happened in the country in the prior week, she was just too angry.

I suspect there are many who can sympathize with this view. The anger—rage even, the discouragement at seemingly feckless efforts that don’t “change anything,” the blaming, the need to protect oneself from the barbs of frustration, when so much causes our frustration-meters to sound alarm. I understand. But I was also disquieted for several hours. Mainly because the approach exemplified in the reaction feels counter-productive, and when I encounter it, edges me in the direction of hopelessness when I want to move in the direction of trust. I suspect that not only will our rage fail to get us out of the mess we’re in, but that it’s not good for the psyche, and ultimately for collective consciousness. Still, after I pondered my feelings for several hours, I realized she was likely having a bad week. How could I know how her feelings were evolving?

But in pondering the experience and my own feelings of anger that week, I was also reminded of an anecdote about A. J. Muste about why we take actions at all around social issues—whether protesting, praying, advocating, letter-writing, essay writing, and so on—when our actions seem to do little. The anecdote goes like this: “Once a reporter asked [A. J. Muste], ‘Do you really think you are going to changes the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?’ A. J. Muste replied softly: ‘Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.’”

Who are our actions changing us into?  Who are our rage-fits changing us into? Who do we want to become?

The fact is, anger is legitimately addictive.{1} And as with anything addictive, it warrants care lest we become agents of our own ruin. Why do we continue to bask in rage despite all the dangerous consequences? The answer: because anger originates in the ancient reward-and-punishment, fight-or-flight part of the brain (the limbic system), which gives us blasts of adrenaline and other energizing chemicals with each indignant tirade.

I’ve heard few people address this topic better than neuropsychologist and Buddhist teacher Rick Hanson (author of Hardwiring Happiness). He teaches how the ancient parts of the human brain evolved to protect us from existential dangers like lurking lions or loss of a critical food source. As such, any fear-cues the brain receives, any negative messages of threat, stick to the brain like Velcro. The encoding of fear, threat and negativity is immediate and deep, and while in our earlier evolutionary forms, helped us to stay vigilant and survive in a world of real threats to our physical survival. On the other hand, “good feelings” were much less important for that survival. If a feeling of warmth and friendship didn’t rapidly encode on the brain, it wouldn’t lead to carelessness on par with ignoring the approach of a lion. Therefore, according to Hanson, while messages of fear and threat are like Velcro on the brain, messages of love and goodness are like Teflon. They just slip right off. If we want to remake our brains according to love, we have to go against our evolutionary conditioning. We have to work at it. Our advancement as a species beyond our endemic reptilian survivalism, may depend on our doing that work. Hanson suggests we have to focus on the good for fifteen seconds if we want the good, loving, and magnanimous to actually shape us. We have to tell ourselves good stories, pay acute attention to the little marvels of grace around us, and soak them in.

Indigenous people long recognized the need to tell the good story—both in word and ritual. Many Indigenous cultures developed in earlier times when the existential threats against which the limbic system responds were real. Yet they also developed value systems and oral traditions that inculcated a sense of meaning far more advanced than mere physical survivalism; traditions that conditioned the brain to pay attention to small acts of generosity, to reciprocal exchanges between species (for example, between plants and the humans they help to sustain), to the gratuitous abundance of beauty in the natural world, to the wisdom Elders stewarded and shared. In all of these traditions, Indigenous people were developing brains attuned to—“sticking to”—the ethical, meaningful, and respectful, in recognition that doing so requires intention and dedication. They knew that merely reacting to the barbs of life, as many people are doing today, without training the brain to achieve the highest potentials to which our species can aspire (creativity, forgiveness, equanimity, reconciliation, generosity, empathy, sustainability reciprocity{2}) would lead to our demise. As one of my own Elders and teachers, Sidney Stone Brown (Blackfoot) wrote: “Native teachings were effective at helping maintain order and respect within communities. According to Native teachings, jealousy and envy brought about hard feelings and attempts to control or diminish others. ‘Bad medicine’ was the terminology used for bad thoughts and bad actions toward other people. To release a person from harm, a ceremony was held to restore the person to his or her natural state, one of having the capacity to love and be loved.”{3}

In his speech at the Convention of the SCLC in 1967, in which he said that “hate is too great a burden to bear,” Martin Luther King, Jr. sounds much like the Elders. The context of that famous quote is a resolute statement on the salubrious nature of love (I suggest, for the brain, the individual, and the collective conscience). Hate—and its antecedent in righteous rage—is too great a burden because it is degenerative, it ultimately tears us down. Yes, anger is natural. But for the sake of our health and that of our society, we can feel the anger, letting it move briefly through and then out of us, so we can move on to lighter modes of being. How one lets it move through is particular to the individual. Sometimes taking a brisk walk works for me; other times, I’ve had to scream in the car and beat the steering wheel. Dancing can be helpful.

I end, then, with this excerpt on love and hate from MLK’s 1967 speech. It is so good to be reminded:

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to [hu]mankind’s problems. (Yes) And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. (No) And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. (Yes) For I have seen too much hate. (Yes) I’ve seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. (Yeah) I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate, myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. (Yes, That’s right) I have decided to love. [applause] If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love.{4}

2 A thank you to Robin Wall Kimmerer for the suggestion that “reciprocity,” not “sustainability,” best describes the Indigenous relationship to the nature world.  I happened to listen to Kimmerer’s interview (then audiobook Braiding Sweetgrass) in the weeks after writing this piece. I learned a great deal more from her about the things written clumsily here.

3 Brown, Sidney Stone. Transformation Beyond Greed: Native Self-Actualization (Stone Brown, 2014), p.112. (Edited by Tricia Gates Brown.)

4 King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1967. “Where Do We Go From Here?” Annual Report Delivered at the 11th Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, Atlanta, GA.

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