You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who’s never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
Someone to open each and every door
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe.
~ Bob Dylan
All through the first 15 years of my life, my mother’s heart had a dream for me – I would attend MIT and become a civil engineer. I have no idea why that was such a strong wish for me. As far as I know she didn’t know any civil engineers, nor anyone who ever went to MIT.
One afternoon when I was 16 however, I came home to discover that my mother’s dream for me had changed. “Last night Tom told me not to worry,” she said (Tom was her first husband who had recently died of tuberculosis). “He said that you’re going to play baseball for the New York Yankees.”
This was the form that my mother’s accumulated, mounting life stresses finally took – a complete psychotic break from reality. She ended up being immediately committed to the state mental hospital in Middletown, Connecticut. My 14-year-old sister and I were promptly placed into the care of our 23 year-old-sister – developmentally still a child herself – but rapidly making a forced cycling through Erik Erickson’s Human Development Stages (see below).
Good Heart – No Teeth
While somewhat of a dramatic illustration, I think it clearly points out what I’m describing in my title. My mother dreamed of me being educated and successful. It was probably also a dream she simultaneously had for herself – she was an avid reader – but she lacked sufficient inner and outer network resources to begin putting foundations in place which would allow such a dream to become reality. For her or for me. My mother’s good heart lacked teeth.
Over the years I have been fortunate in my life to encounter people whose healing dreams for me not only turned out to be well-matched with my own, but whose hearts had sufficient teeth to help me bring those dreams into reality. I won’t name them all here. You know who you are.
Taking It to Level 7 on the Brain Integration Scale
Most of those toothy angels who periodically appeared in my life had progressed in their own lives through Erik Erikson’s 8 Stages of Human Psychosocial Development and made it to the generativity (rather than the stagnation) side of Stage 7. This is the stage that begins to care about and offer support to the generations following behind it.
When you look at each of Erikson’s stages, it’s not too hard to imagine there are neural correlates – specific neural network constellations – associated with each of them. If you administered fMRI brain scans to people previously identified at Stages 1-8, I’m guessing you would see specific patterns of network integration that would correlate with each stage. It takes more energy and information processing and network integration to begin thinking about people other than ourselves. We know, for example, that the posterior end of the cingulate gyrus lights up brightly in people identified as narcissists, while the anterior (front) part of the cingulate gyrus lights up in people who easily express high degrees of empathy. Caring for and helping others just seems to be the general global direction in which healthy, growing, integrating, aging brains want to naturally move. The brain wants to grow the heart in ways that have teeth.
Sweethearts R Us
Most of the people I know whom I would describe as good-hearted are true sweethearts. I sometimes find myself in that category. Mostly though, I am aware of not having sufficient teeth to provide the help others often need or could benefit from, for instance, the way Mick Ebeling does. When your heart has teeth, here are two ways you often show up in the world where it then becomes a matter of whose are bigger.
One recent personal example: several weeks ago I applied to be a volunteer member of our town’s local Ethics Board. I would be part of the team that received complaints about town police or public officials committing “actions that are not in the town’s best interests or that have the appearance of impropriety.” This seemed like a good, Eriksonian Stage 7 way to be of service, however I was rejected and given reasons that I felt were specious – one of my references had unproven ethical allegations made against them (making me guilty by association and hearsay?); and the interviewers (all men) didn’t like research I cited from MIT (interestingly) noting that groups made up of all men don’t make decisions as well as groups with at least a few women members.
Instead of taking issue with the decision, I simply meekly accepted the rejection and went on my way. I then made up all kinds of rationalizations about why their decision was “for the best.” In my heart though, I knew my response had no teeth.
This appears to be me and my brain’s current work: grow some heart teeth. On a less genteel blog, the writer might say, “Grow some balls.” To which I would respond: “Neural network willing.”
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