I recently heard Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experience of having a stroke in a Ted Talk. She is a scientist who had done work in studying the brain, encouraged to do so because she had grown up with a brother who suffered from schizophrenia. She wanted to know why he got that disease, and why other people suffered from bipolar disease, depression and other mental illnesses. She wanted to know what happened in the brain that caused such catastrophic results.
She says that one day she awakened to a terrible headache. The pain was behind one of her eyes. It was bad, but she thought that perhaps she had just been working too hard. She got up and began her day. Periodically she noticed that her body seemed different, that she was walking differently and seeing things differently, but she pressed on. She got into the shower and finally realized that something was terribly wrong. One of her arms was not working properly. She realized she was having a stroke.
She got out of the shower, head still pounding, left arm pretty useless, but decided she had to call for help. It took her 45 minutes to go through stack of business cards to find that of one of her colleagues. She needed that card with his name and number because she could not remember her office number or any other number, for that matter.
When she finally found the card, it took her another half hour to dial the number. She could see the number, but she couldn’t find it on the phone; she had to resort to looking at the way the figures “squiggled” so that she could find similar “squiggles” on the phone. When she finally got through, she thought she was OK but after she said “hello” and her colleague responded, she realized that she could not understand what he was saying; his words were a garbled mess. And she realized, listening to herself, that her words sounded garbled as well.
The phone call was enough to alert her colleague that something was wrong. He called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital. It had been four hours since she had awakened with that headache. As she was put into the ambulance, she noticed that her body felt alternatively like dead weight and nothing. She lost consciousness and remembers thinking that she was about to die.
She didn’t die. She woke up in intensive care, tubes everywhere. Two weeks after her stroke, she had surgery to remove the golf-ball sized blood clot which had been the culprit.
It took eight years for her to completely recover.
It was during her recovery period that her fascination with the brain grew with a fierceness. She had made studying the brain her life’s work, and with a twist of irony, her own brain had given her fodder for her research.
She began to understand the brain in a new way. The brain, she said, has two different hemispheres which function independently of each other. The left brain is the more analytical; it is from that hemisphere that our capacity to speak and use language comes. The right hemisphere is responsible for our emotional selves, and she said that her stroke allowed her to live in both hemispheres in a conscious way, unlike she had ever done before.
What she realized is yes, that we are, as the psalmist said, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” but she also realized that we can choose from which side of our brain that we want to live. Living in the left side of the brain makes us individualistic and reclusive and isolated but living in or from the right side makes us connect with each other in ways that are life-giving. It is from right-side living that we form and protect and cherish community, something which makes the world a better place.
Her words were and are intriguing. She said we can choose the way we want to live, that we can choose which hemisphere we want to dominate our existence. God, it seems, created a masterpiece in the human body. That we become aware of who we are and what God has equipped us to do is what we do with what God has created.
Every day upon waking, I mutter a prayer of thanksgiving for waking up healthy and in my right mind, but this woman’s talk made me realize that I am not making the most of my capacity to choose the kind of life God wants for me. I would bet that many of us are like that. In our finite selves there are infinite possibilities which we can realize by consciously working both the left and right sides of our brains. God’s master plan of creation has put before us lives that most of us have not explored.
Not exploring is to our own detriment. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, after all, and God wants us to know and live in that truth.
Amen and amen.