In my mind’s eye, I have the pillbox sitting on the desk in front of me. It’s clear and plastic and it has individual rectangular compartments with lids that snap closed. Each compartment has a pill inside. It’s not a red pill or a blue pill, but a small white pill, and instead of the customary seven letters – SMTWTFS – that you might expect to find on each lid, instead are two letters: NB, JD, BO, TS, MT, NM, BH, RP, DG, RL … the initials on the pillbox lids stretch far out into the distance. Each represents someone in my personal history I’d like to forgive. On the last lid are the letters: GOD. Do I take the pill? Do I give one to my daughter when I feel the need?
The Nose Knows
The May 22, 2008 issue of Neuron presents research on the early formulations of just such a pill. Although technically, it was administered as a nasal spray, oxytocin was found to reduce the activity in the amygdala, which processes fear, as well as attending to the possibility of social betrayal. I would expect pharmaceutical companies to continue refining the formulations of this drug, just as they’re already producing drugs to generally increase neurogenesis. But who should have access to it? And under what circumstances? A part of me would love to simply take such a pill and be done with it. But another part of me suspects doing so would be yet another case of treating the symptoms and missing something calling to me, something of much deeper significance.
Forgiving the Unforgiveable
Letlapa Mphahlele was the operations director of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army in South Africa. One night a number of years ago, he ordered an attack at the Heidelberg Tavern in Capetown. In that attack, Lyndi, the 23 year old daughter of Ginn Fourie was killed. In the time since then, the black revolutionary and the white mother have been on a healing journey together, one of reconciliation and forgiveness. Mphahlele has worked to set up a Foundation in Lyndi’s name and the two travel together and speak about both the need for, and the challenges to bringing about peace and forgiveness in the world. Will a Forgiveness Pill produce the same level of engagement, healing and social action in the world that it has for these two people? Should Ginn Fourie or Letlapa Mphahlele have taken the pill?
The Pain of Pills
There is mounting evidence that a sense of powerless, helplessness or loss of control impairs neural development (think America’s public education system – but that’s another can of pills). Perhaps deciding whether or not someone might take the Forgiveness Pill should be left to that someone. If such a pill is to help in the alleviation of suffering, perhaps it is not up to us to decide if someone is suffering enough to grant them access to the pill. Perhaps our job is to explain the upside and the downside and let people choose for themselves. It might work the way pain medications are administered in progressive hospices, where patients in palliative care hold up fingers to indicate their level of discomfort. Any fingers more than three are provided with pain relief. But many people at the end of life choose to bear as much pain as they can, sensing that something important is happening and that the pain is an integral part of it.
You Choose, You Win
But perhaps the real significance of a pill like this one isn’t so much the function it performs. Perhaps the simple fact that it is needed in the first place will bring attention to and powerfully drive home for parents, teachers, therapists and clergy that the actions we take in the world powerfully affect our own and other people’s neurobiology. For better or worse.