Topic Archives: the self/human person

The over-arching topic “the self/human person” encompasses much of my work, from my research on love to my studies of the social and psychological aspects of health to my appreciations for how the arts can inform our views of the human person. I am particularly interested in questions about the self, about human freedom within limits and about non-reductive views of the human person.

the master and his emissary

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the most eye-opening books I have read in the past few years is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009) by the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. The title is taken from a story about a wise spiritual master who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, his domain grew in size. He then had to trust others, emissaries, to ensure the well-being of the more distant parts. He had to delegate to these emissaries. He nurtured and trained them, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious emissary, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s balanced temperament and patience as weakness, not wisdom. So the emissary became contemptuous of his master, and considered himself in charge as he did his work. So he took over, and his tyrannical approach cause the domain to ultimately collapse in ruin without the wise ruler being in charge.

This story, says McGilchrist, represents how the two sides of the brain need to work together for our success as people and as a civilization.   Although he takes the two sides of the brain as his starting point, he assures the reader that the way ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ have been used in popular culture are simplistic and do not adequately grasp the complexity that he sees existing, and I agree about the simplistic take on left brain/right brain.  His deep and thoughtful book stretches beyond these simplifications and can inform the way we see the world and ourselves. From his introduction:

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture….

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words [more left brain] are processed serially, while pictures [more right brain] are taken in all at once. But even here the potential significance of this distinction has been overlooked. Anyone would think that we were simply talking about another relatively trivial difference of limited use or interest, a bit like finding that cats like to have their meat chopped up into small bits, whereas dogs like to wolf their meat in slabs. At most it is seen as helpful in making predictions about the sort of tasks that each hemisphere may preferentially carry out, a difference in ‘information processing’, but of no broader significance. But if it is true, the importance of the distinction is hard to over-estimate. And if it should turn out that one hemisphere [the right] understands metaphor, where the other does not, this is not a small matter of a quaint literary function having to find a place somewhere in the brain. Not a bit. It goes to the core of how we understand our world, even our selves, as I hope to be able to demonstrate.…The relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with an alarming self-confidence.”

In the book he describes the Left Hemisphere (as a symbol as well as an aspect of the brain itself) as being the more verbal, analytical, breaking things down into parts, attending to details, not necessarily in context. But because it is so verbally quick and facile, it is able to shut down the right side of the brain, sending constant inhibitory signals, that enable the way it acts and envisions the world to ‘take over’ both in our minds, and in our culture. He goes on to say:

“…I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”

His suggestion for the world is that we need both aspects of our minds, and the world needs both. And we need to envision ways for the right brain to be empowered to be the “wise ruler” and the left brain serving those ends in the world.

For me, the ultimate wise ruler would be a meta-view of all. McGilchrist’s descriptions of how we function biologically can enable us to recognize the biases that might exist in the world today, that need our correction. We can see how the aspects of our brain that describe the world in mechanistic and fragmented ways can take over, even though they are better designed to serve rather than dominate.

Joy in hard times

 art by lynn

art by lynn

I am involved in a project at Yale University on joy, considering what science might have to contribute to our understanding of it. I have also been doing more work and writing on how dire circumstances can help us dispel certain delusions of thinking. These words speak to both:

The basic assumption of the happiness mentality—in spite of considerable hard evidence to the contrary—is that if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. The corollary of this assumption is that if one is not happy, one is doing something wrong. These two beliefs form the foundation of a system that has become so rampant in recent years that many people now feel any sign of unhappiness in their lives is a symptom of psychological or spiritual disorder. People who believe this strive to resolve or repress unhappiness as quickly as possible….

The happiness mentality causes people to repress or deny many of their own negative feelings. It prohibits the rich experience of living through painful situations, of fully feeling and being in the sadness, grief, and fear that are natural parts of human existence. It fosters a pastel quality of life, with limited ranges of emotion. Some shallow conditions of ‘happiness’ may be achieved in this way, but joy is altogether out of the question. Most of us know that prohibiting agony in the experience of life must also prohibit joy. To try to accomplish one without the other is to dilute both the experience and the meaning of life. But the happiness mentality can overcome this knowledge, convince us that sadness is unhealthy, and cause us to bridle all our feelings. At best, this watered-down existence takes on a ‘Pollyanna’ atmosphere, denying the negativity of life. At its worst, it sinks into apathy, denying life itself.

Human beings who adhere to the happiness mentality are continually attempting to deprive themselves of the rich dark side of life, the leaven, the creative complementarity without which happiness is empty. If these attempts are successful, life’s experiences become as flimsy as tissue. If the attempts fail, people feel that something is deeply wrong inside them. Neither way allows the precious beautiful, awesome possibilities of accepting the richness of life as it presents itself in each moment.

Perhaps the greatest inherent defect of the happiness mentality is that it prohibits sensitivity and responsiveness to the suffering of others. The happiness mentality maintains that one must first organize one’s own life toward the absence of discomfort. Even if a person manages to accomplish this for a brief period of time, the terrible pain in the rest of the world still exists. One then has an extremely limited range of options in responding to this pain. One can deny it, shut it out of awareness through ‘selective inattention,’ or one can engage in brief sophomoric attempts to rationalize it. But the fact remains: private happiness can exist as a permanent condition in the midst of public suffering only if it is based on delusion.

(This is of course not to say that one must carry the world’s burdens on one’s shoulders with constant morbidity. In fact, the happiness mentality is in large part a rebellion against precisely this kind of puritanical pessimism. It was not too long ago that people in our culture were looked upon with suspicion if they appeared too happy. Many puritanical-pietistic themes of Middle America maintained that life was hard, that each person had to bear the cross, and that suffering was good for the soul. It was believed that something was morally wrong with people who did not seem to be struggling with the pain of life. It is not surprising that generations of such somber sobriety would eventually bring rebellion. As usual, however, the pendulum swung too far. Now, instead of happiness being seen as a moral impropriety, unhappiness is seen as a psychological defect.)

Whenever one is preoccupied with happiness, the possibility of joy is pre-empted. Poets, contemplatives, and some philosophers have long maintained that a fundamental qualitative difference exists between these two states, but our society is just barely beginning to appreciate how radical that difference is. Happiness has to do with Freud’s old pleasure principle: the satisfaction of needs and the avoidance of pain. Joy is altogether beyond any consideration of pleasure or pain, and in fact requires a knowledge and acceptance of pain. Joy is the reaction one has to the full appreciation of Being. It is one’s response to finding one’s rightful, rooted place in life, and it can happen only when one knows through and through that absolutely nothing is being denied or otherwise shut out of awareness.”

May, Gerald. (1987). Will and Spirit. Harper and Row. pp 14-16

being completely

singlefacelynnunderwood There is always

a certain peace

in being what one is,

in being that completely.

-Ugo Betti

to everything there is a season

finalsquashesLynnUnderwood

drawing by lynn

Autumn has arrived here in the middle of the US. I am a lover of sun and warmth, but somehow this year, I am finding myself loving this season. As leaves leave the trees, they burst into such glorious colors. And this is also the time of apples and squashes and onions – such marvelous fruits of the earth. This morning it is rainy and cold, but I look outside and see the colors, and smell baked squash and apples, and I think, there is something wonderful happening in this time and place.

means to a means

Well Water

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”watercompressedlynnunderwood
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
a means to a means to) is well water
pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
and hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
a sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
the wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

(by Randall Jarrell, Vintage Contemporary Poetry, pg 65-66, Discovered in the notebooks of Gertrude Beversluis)

Immanuel Kant, not my favorite philosopher, was adamant that we should treat people as “ends in themselves”, not only as means to an end.  Some people try to manipulate us, flatter us, and basically see us as means to their ends, ways to get what they want to happen. This is demeaning for us, even if we don’t consciously realize what’s going on.

We even do this to ourselves in our daily lives. And this is what this poem reminds me of. I so often slip into putting myself on the “squirrel-wheel”, pushing the wheel, getting only rusty water.  When I treat myself as only a means to an end I demean myself.  Instead I want to see daily life like the author does at the end of the poem, and gulp from the clear fresh water of the dailiness of life as I do tasks, relaxing with pleasure into the flow of life.

essence

art by lynn

art by lynn

listening with my pen

maialynnunderwood I have spent a lot of time in various meetings over the last couple of months. When I am not speaking, there is lots of time for listening. I find that by drawing people, it helps me to focus, and also to ‘get’ people in a more wordsmithlynnunderwoodcomplex way, to hear them beyond their words or silences.  Here are a few sketches of lovely people from a recent meeting.ftzcm2lynnunderwood 1

our bodies, ourselves

Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” —James Joyce, Dubliners

We so often forget our bodies, ignore them, and even treat them badly. Bodies are literally wonderful, even when they are not behaving in ways that we like. Even in sickness, or when causing us grief. One of the reasons I love the Christmas season so much, is its reminder to me that the spiritual and physical aspects of our lives are linked. The Christmas story of the divine entering into the messiness of the human condition reminds me that the divine is also involved in my messy condition. The story does not describe some pristine scene, with everyone in their best clothes, pretending that challenging feelings are not there. It is a story where a pregnant woman arrives in a strange place, there is no room in the inn, and she ends up in a stable with dirt and animals and has her baby there. Having a baby is very physical – not clean and tidy. And the first visitors are the local shepherds, probably with some sheep. The whole scene connects with physical bodies and situations and messy emotions. There was lots of worry and pain and puzzlement, as well as joy and amazement.

During the Christmas season I sing with my body, eat good things with my body, hug and am hugged with my body, worship with my body. I suffer when things are not going so well – with people or physically. I find myself suffering on behalf of others less fortunate than I am. I feel the pain of this in my body. And the Christmas story keeps bringing me back to the reality of the divine in my physical being. Reminding me that if I leave my body out of the equation, I am not truly living life.

You will be entering this holiday season in your body—there is not much chance of doing without it! Can you think of how your whole being engages with the various aspects of the holiday season? In relationships, with food, with consuming, in giving, with music. Pay attention to signals that your body sends: of grief, distress, need – but also of joy, affection and delight. Don’t let your body just go on autopilot, but welcome it into the mix. Enter into the complexity of the holiday season with your whole being and see where that takes you.

drawing by Rembrandt

drawing by Rembrandt

welcoming

rentcolor3LynnUnderwood

from Scaffolding: Selected Poems, by Jane Cooper, Tilbury House, 1993

Our relationships with others challenge our sense of ourselves, and our perception of the spaces we live in. How do we listen? How do we make space for each other? How do we envision the places we live in together?

art and receptivity

Trying to externalize experiences by painting, writing, etc. helps us to understand them and to be more receptive. Being receptive and willing to change and grow makes one most alive I think – more vulnerable to both pain and joy. – John Busby (Drawing Birds, Christopher Helm Publishers, 2004)

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

 

too many

art by lynn

art by lynn

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.” – Thomas Merton

the real work

art by lynn

The Real Work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

By Wendell Berry

My favorite line in this poem is the final one.  Most of the beautiful music of the sound of water is made when it is impeded, obstructed somehow. Music made from what seem like obstructions in my life. But the other lines of the poem are important for me to hear too. Think of those people who are always totally sure of what to do next. They are not usually the wisest ones. What do we do when up to our hips in the mud?

http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/675

hands

Harold Wilke was a stately older man, and I was having a lively and personal conversation with him and others over cocktails before a meeting at the National Center for Rehabilitation Research in Washington DC years ago. I continued the conversation as I sat next to him at dinner. We had been eating for a while and chatting, and then I suddenly noticed that his fork and knife were being held by his white-gloved feet. He had no hands or arms.

The relaxed graciousness of his presence impressed me. If I did not have arms and hands I would miss so many things. Shaking hands with people on meeting them. Hugging those in distress. Touching with my fingers those I love. Playing the piano. And all of those things don’t even address having to find other solutions to opening doors, taking notes, cooking, using a computer or texting. When I think of blessings that I am thankful for, I do not usually think of my hands. If I did not have arms and hands, I would hope that I would have the quiet gracious presence of Dr. Wilke. It was as if he was more fully human.

The House at Rest

How do we create the space for silence in the midst of the busy-ness of our thoughts, our activities, our feelings – a space of deep rest within, where we can draw strength for our actions and our effective presence in the world? So often our days consist of constant reaction to various things without a sense of a center from which we act. How do we hush the busy house of our minds and bodies so that our actions flow out from that inspired core in good and effective ways? This poem by Jessica Powers, from The Selected Poems of Jessica Powers (ICS Publications, Washington DC, 1989) captures this imaginatively.

The House at Rest

On a dark night

Kindled in love with yearnings

Oh, happy chance!—

I went forth unobserved,

My house being now at rest.     

– Juan de la Cruz

How does one hush one’s house,

each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,

the rooms made restless with

remembered laughter

or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,

the stairs that vacillate from up to down,

windows that bring in color and event

from countryside or town,

oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?

 

The house must first of all accept the night.

Let it erase the walls and their display,

impoverish the rooms till they are filled

with humble silences; let clocks be stilled

and all the selfish urgencies of day.

 

Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.

Caution the doors against both foes and friends,

and try to make the windows understand

their unimportance when the daylight ends.

Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny

the passages their aimless to and fro.

Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.

How well repaid that tenant is, how blest

who, when the call is heard,

is free to take his kindled heart and go.

 

 

difficulties

By now I think I ought to have what it takes to do what I am doing, to deal with the various challenges of life.  But so many things still feel like an adventure (that is the more optimistic term) and I need to find new resources and develop new skills.  I like the poem “Transcendental Etude” by Adrienne Rich, from the book The Dream of a Common Language: Poems, 1974 – 1977  (Norton, 1978). Here is an excerpt:

fly magified lynnunderwood comprNo one ever told us we had to study our lives,

make of our lives a study,

as if learning natural history or music,

that we should begin with the simple exercises first

and slowly go on trying the hard ones,

practicing till strength and accuracy became one with the daring

to leap into transcendence, take the chance of breaking down the wild arpeggio or faulting the full sentence of the fugue.

–And in fact we can’t live like that: we take on everything at once

before we’ve even begun to read or mark time,

we’re forced to begin in the midst of the hard movement,

the one already sounding as we are born….

don’t forget to breathe

When listening to popular music I sometimes take in the words in an abstract way, and lines just stick with me, rather than the ‘meaning’ of the song. A song just works its way into me in unexplainable ways, the poetry in musical form. This song by the Scottish singer Alexi Murdoch has worked its way in. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCEzoOpG1zQ

breathe face cpd cmps lynnunderwood

drawing by lynn

“Keep your head above water….and don’t forget to breathe.”  And the sound of his voice and the instrumentals somehow ground me in good ways too. How often all we can do in situations is just ‘keep our heads above water.’ But don’t forget to breathe! The past few weeks I have had bronchitis, and it brings home to me once again how linked our minds and bodies are. We are not disembodied spirits – we live in our bodies. And that is good.

The gutsiness of music can remind us that we are gutsy. Often our bodies don’t seem cooperative, they limit us in various ways. But while we are alive, these sometimes frail or recalcitrant bodies are essential to living a complete life. And the only place to be is in them, and thankful to be able to breathe.

delusions about perfection

“Our delusions about perfection are obstacles to joy,” writes Wendy Beckett (a woman with prayer at the center of her life, but also an art historian with her own BBC series on art) in her simple book “On Prayer.”  I have read a lot of books on prayer, and there are not that many that I really feel have spoken to me over the years. So often they are just a distraction from getting down to the real business of silence, listening, being truly open, all of me, to the divine light, warmth, and challenges, while standing in who I really am. I loved what she has to say about perfection:

“To be perfect is to be complete….We are all human in different ways. And for us, perfection – to me a rather off-putting noun – can mean only becoming completely what we were meant to be.  Each of us is called to an individual fulfillment, that only God understands. Because we are all different, “perfection,” which I would prefer to call ‘holiness,’ will be different for each of us.  It will take into account our genetic weaknesses. It will allow for the areas in which we will never be objectively admirable, though we may have subjectively striven to the full extent….”

I would add that our particular perfection, or holiness for each of us, will also take into account our particular psychological issues, the gifts and problems put there by our upbringing, the constraints of culture and social situations. We need to be merciful with ourselves as we think about just what is perfect for me, for you.

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

marvel

What is a spiritual experience after all?  Sometimes we can have a sense of what it ought to be and that can get in the way. I find that this poem, Veni Creator, by Czeslaw Milosz, a Lithuanian-Polish poet, from the book, Collected Poems, 1931-1987, speaks to me.

Come, Holy Spirit,

bending or not bending the grasses,

appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,

at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards,

or when snow covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.

 

I am only a human being: I need visible signs.

I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.

Many a time I asked, you know it well,

that the statue in church lift its hand, only once, just once, for me.

But I understand that signs must be human,

therefore, call one person, anywhere on earth,

not me-after all I have some decency-

and allow me, when I look at that person,

to marvel at you.

musical communication

How does music express so much?

The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of it, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.” – Marilynne Robinson in The Paris Review Interviews IV

Like in this modern cello music by Zoe Keating:

 

 

 

the effect of our being

 “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – the final sentence of Middlemarch, by George Eliot

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

I just returned from a few days consulting and speaking with those who work for and lead a social services organization. The people they serve, many of them young people, are in such difficult situations in life. Those that work in these settings give ‘water from their well’ again and again, and I hoped to provide them with some ways to fill the well and find ways of caring for themselves and communicating about things they value.  I found myself feeling so respectful of the work they do, and so thankful that they are doing this work, and being who they are.

 

delusion of total self-sufficiency

drawing by lynn

drawing by lynn

It is delusional to think that we are fully self-sufficient. Last Saturday I led an all-day retreat on “Flourishing in Difficult Circumstances.” One thing we  talked about was how the sense of total self-sufficiency is a delusion, one that is prevalent in our western culture. One of my Power Point slides was this drawing I did long ago….I found it folded up in my files, and I recently hung it up in my study. Of course the importance of personal responsibility cannot be undervalued, but difficult circumstances can vividly remind us of how we all do need help.

uniqueness and things in common

irisLynnUnderwood

drawing by lynn

How wonderful that we are not all the same, and that we can still understand each other so often.

It seems normal to assume that the person I am talking to, or trying to understand, is basically like me.  And of course we do have a lot in common.  But this sense of our commonalities gets in the way if I do not step back, again and again, and consider our differences. People have different genetics that even shape things like our physical responses to stress. We each have had different life experiences that influence our responses to events and people and culture. Each person I encounter, from those I am close to, to new people I meet, is different from me, even though we have things in common.

I continue to be amazed at how different we all are. Without attention to our commonalities, medical and social science could not make discoveries, and art could not speak widely. But we all need to fully recognize our individual differences again and again, in order to make progress in understanding—understanding generally about the world, and practical understanding that helps us to relate to others in our ordinary lives. When I developed the 16 questions of the DSES scale of ordinary spiritual experiences I interviewed many many people of various ages, cultures, beliefs, genders, and ethnicities.  And when asked to describe their experiences, each person’s responses were different. The 16 questions group those experiences, and help people see connections with others. That commonality is so important, but recognition that the other person’s experience is valid, and different in some way from my own is essential too.  It is challenging to keep both in mind in our days.

 

opening endlessly

Tourists have crowded into… the half-dark of the enormous Romanesque church. Vault opening behind vault and no perspective. A few candle flames flickered. An angel whose face I couldn’t see embraced me and his whisper went all through my body: “Don’t be ashamed to be a human being, be proud! Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly. You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.” Tears blinded me as we were herded out into the fiercely sunlit piazza, together with Mr. and Mrs. Jones, Herr Tanaka and Signora Sabatini; within each of them vault after vault opened endlessly.

-from ‘The Half-Finished Heaven’ by Tomas Transtromer,
Winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature

It must be somewhere

Study-of-Clouds-largeMUSIC
By Juhan Liiv

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

Translated from the Estonian by H. L. Hix and Jüri Talvet  Source: Poetry (June 2011) http://bit.ly/kxfS8D

roots dangling

roots on_lynnunderwood

It is so much easier, when we speak to a group of people, to pretend to be someone we are not, taking the stance of the totally confident and sure expert. It takes courage to be who we are, warts and all. We think somehow if we seem perfect, then what we say will be more compelling, that people will take us more seriously. But it is when we stand with the mud adhering to our hands, and the roots dangling, that we speak authentically. I did this drawing to remind myself of this. In these days with airbrushing of photos and massaging of images on the web and in broadcast, “polished” seems to be the norm.  But who we really are, with roots dangling, mud clinging, imperfections sparkling in the eternal sun – that is real beauty.

Freedom

jean vanierJean Vanier inspires me. He started the L’Arche communities. They bring people who are marginalized and restless from lack of community and care, together with those who learn to care for them. They especially create small caring communities for those who have developmental disabilities.

I met Jean Vanier over 30 years ago while living in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  A small room of about 20 people had gathered to hear him speak and talk with him. Meeting him made a strong impression on me, and I followed up by reading anything by him I could get my hands on. He was from an important political family in Canada, had served in the Navy in WWII, and then pursued a PhD in philosophy.  It was after this that he came to establish the L’Arche communities. As he spoke of the gift that those who had mental developmental disabilities were to him in his life, it helped me to see that what I had most valued in myself up to that time, my intellectual abilities, were not the most important thing in my life. The communities he started were based on mutual respect – those with developmental disabilities have things to share with us, things they can teach us, things they can give us. His life demonstrated how he really valued all people. We all have different gifts, and discovering those is an opportunity for each of us.

In addition to his writings on disability and community, he has also described human freedom in ways that I have found worth pondering.  In his book, Being Human, he wrote:  “Aristotle talks of our passions as being like a horse which has a life of its own.  We are riders who have to take into account the life of the horse in order to guide it where we want it to go.  We are not called to suppress our passions or compulsions, nor to confront them head on, nor to be governed by them, but to orient them in the direction we want to go….We set out on the road to freedom when we no longer let our compulsions or passions govern us.  We are freed when we begin to put justice, heartfelt relationships, and the service of others and of truth over and above our own needs for love and success or our fears of failure….”

Stained Glass

art by lynn

We,
people
are living stained glass windows
Beautiful in ourselves.
Meant
too
for
light;
for color-bathing others.

Marlene Halpin OP

Healing Balm

In the midst of famine in Sudan in the 1980’s, everything was dry – grasses and foliage. To keep from focusing on hunger and distress, the women began to weave baskets from the dry grasses, beautiful baskets.  This weekend I heard, live, a beautiful piece of music. The Famine Song, by Vida, arranged by Mathew Culloton, that describes this. I find listening to this song deeply soothing somehow. It touches within me places of injury and distress and provides a healing balm.

Here is a link to a group singing this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKZN3JeyCPc

1979.20.112_a

Some of the beginning words of the song are :

Ease my spirit
Ease my soul
Please free my hands from this barren soil

Ease my mother
Ease my child
Earth and sky be reconciled

 

And at the end :

Weave my mother

Weave my child
Weave your baskets of rushes wild
Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain, rain

metaphor and the self

Metaphor and the Self: A Role for the Arts in Understanding Suffering and Treating the Person in Distress, Lynn Underwood, International Neuroethics Conference, Brain Matters 3: Values at the Crossroads of Neurology, Psychiatry, and Psychology, October 24-25, 2012

Abstract:

Research shows that the metaphors we use affect our behaviors and attitudes in significant ways. (Holding a cup of hot coffee rather than a cold drink can cause us to have a more friendly attitude towards those we meet; Boroditsky’s work showing how reading about a description of crime as a virus rather than a beast can influence our decisions on the best ways to control the same criminal behaviors.) These effects usually happen implicitly – we are not aware of them. The machine metaphor recurs in our descriptions of the brain and the overall functioning of the body and has become an automatic default. It can be useful in simplifying complex systems, and medical training encourages this. Even efforts to promote humanism in medicine slide in this direction, as communication, empathy and ethical decisions are formulated in mechanistic terms.

This kind of thinking can get in the way when we treat conditions for which no “physical” cause can be found. Self-reports made by the person and their experiences of suffering are essential to the identification of the roots of the problems and opportunities for treatment. However if one buys into the machine metaphor too much, the experience of the person is given less weight in the overall assessment, while objective features such as brain scans, blood chemistry and physiologically evident symptoms are given the final say. Measurements based solely on a machine model lead to interventions that presuppose a kind of person that is incongruous with the way we live our lives, and what is most important to us.

Visual art, film and literature can give insight into the nature of the human person that offers alternative metaphors for the human person, and opens opportunities for creative approaches to treatment and evaluation of outcomes. This presentation would elaborate on those, and give specific examples of how they can help yield more effective treatments and decisionmaking.

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neuroethics course syllabus

INTD 381: Introduction Neuroethics
Introduction to Neuroethics
Syllabus
Spring 2008
Professor Lynn Underwood
INTD 381
Time: 9 30-12 30 Mon Tues Thurs Friday
Class Summary:

Ethical issues that relate to our brains and nervous systems are becoming of increasing importance not just for health professionals but for us all. In this class we will engage with ethical issues arising from new discoveries and technologies in Neuroscience and Cognitive Psychology. We will consider implications for individual action and general policies. We will be exposed to the technologies, philosophical assumptions, and conclusions of the research. Topics introduced will include: moral decision-making and the brain; the interpretation of insights provided by neural imaging (e.g. brain scans); legal responsibility and mental illness; pain and suffering; the effects of psychologically potent drugs and technologies and their appropriate use; the role of and appropriate use of enhancement of mental functioning via drugs and other technologies; and ethics of and mechanisms of brain manipulation by marketing, the media, and other non-medical sources. We will also reflect on how the scientific findings and potential interventions, when combined with other sources of knowledge, have implications for what it means to be human. The text for the course will be “Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy” edited by J. Illes. Films and websites will also be used for resources – one film introducing some basics of brain science through narratives of those suffering from brain diseases ( such as depression, Alzheimers, ADHD and schizophrenia), and a fictional film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. A class trip or visit from a professional in the field, such as a neurosurgeon or clinical bioethicist is planned. Grades will be based on class participation, short essays and class presentations, a final project (either a researched essay or a creative narrative project), and final essay exam.

Goals of Course:

To engage with the ethical issues that are arising in Neuroscience and Cognitive psychology
To develop opinions about where you stand on various complex issues in this field
To be able to articulate stands regarding policy options
To come to a clearer understanding of what exactly it means to be human by combining the findings of Neuroscience with those in other areas of knowledge
Text:
Neuroethics: Defining the Issues in Theory, Practice, and Policy,J Illes (editor), Oxford University Press, NY, 2006.

Additional readings: Two overview articles from Trends in Cognitive Science will be sent via email as attachments. There may be additional readings on Sakai, in the library, on the web, or sent to you via email. One key article will be: Farah, Martha J., Neuroethics: the practical and the philosophical, Trends in Cognitive Science 9:1, 2005. P 34-40

Also we will read and watch various stories in books and articles of those with Neuro and Cognitive impairments.
Class schedule

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday

April 17 Film

April 18 Ethics overview
April 21 Brain disease overview

April 22 Film discussion

April 23 text/readings 2

April 24 discussion

April 25 Articles/Chapters as assigned
April 28 Articles/Chapters as assigned

April 29 Alzheimer’s Chapter 7

April 30 text/readings

May 1 Neurosurgery – Class visit Clinical Ethicist

May 2 Final readings/discussion
May 5Projects

May 6 last dayProjects

May 7 Exam

Weighting of assignments:
40% Class attendance, participation in discussion, quizzes, essays, and brief presentations
30% Final Project
30% Final Essay Exam

Final Project: This will be discussed more fully in class. However, you will take a key issue from class or readings. You will draw from the text and articles, do outside research, take a stand on how it needs to be addressed, and describe impact and relevance for action. You may also draw on philosophy, religious studies, literature, visual art, and film to more clearly make your points. This can be a didactic or a creative work. Use APA format for project if in didactic format. You will present on your project in class and lead discussion on the topic.

 

 

compassionate love publications by lynn underwood

The Science of Compassionate Love: Research, Theory, and Applications. Fehr. B. Sprecher, S, Underwood, LG, eds. Oxford England, Malden Mass: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds., Oxford University Press, 2002.

Articles/Chapters:

“Interviews with Trappist Monks as a Contribution to Research Methodology in the Investigation of Compassionate Love.” Underwood LG Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 35:3 (September, 2005), 285-302.

“Altruistic Love – Compassionate Love”. Underwood, L. In Harry T. Reis & Susan Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. (2009)

“Chapter 1: Compassionate love: A framework for research” Underwood, Lynn G. in Fehr, Sprecher and Underwood The Science of Compassionate Love: Theory Research and Applications, Blackwell. Wiley- Blackwell. Malden Massachusetts, Oxford, England 2009.

“Giving of Self for the Good of the Other: Science Research on Compassionate Love and Spirituality” Underwood, Lynn G. in The Love that Does Justice, Edwards, Michael and Post Stephen (eds), Cleveland, Ohio 2008, p 133-138.

“Compassionate Love,” in Post, Stephen G. ed. 2004. Encyclopedia of Bioethics, 3rd edition. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 483-488.

“The Human Experience of Compassionate Love: Conceptual Mapping and Data from Selected Studies”, in Post, SG, Underwood, LG, Schloss, JP, Hurlbut, WB, eds. Altruism and Altruistic Love: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in Dialogue, 2002. New York City: Oxford University Press. 72-88.

“Concluding Summary and Future Research Needs on Altruism and Altruistic Love,” with Post, SG in ibid. 3-12, 379-386.

neuroethics, the arts, and the nature of the human person

Neuroethics, the Arts and the Nature of the Human Person. Lynn Underwood. Medical Humanities Conference, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan, September 29-30 2011.

Abstract

The arts and humanities are essential to effectively grapple with the questions that arise from advances in neuroscientific technologies and treatments. They are essential for medical practitioners as they make treatment and policy decisions. But even those not professionally involved with health care need the arts and humanities as we make decisions about what kinds of pharmaceutical and neurosurgical interventions are appropriate for ourselves and those we care for, policy decisions regarding issues such as human responsibility within health care and criminal justice, and decisions about how to regulate and respond to marketing of neurotechnologies of various kinds.

Also, neuroscientists and interpreters of neuroscience make claims about how ethics operates and the nature of the human person. The humanities can provide us with tools for doing the kinds of reflection necessary to effectively accept or discard these claims. The arts can help to reveal qualities and issues in novel and useful ways.

This presentation will lay out the scope of the problems, and highlight some particularly thorny issues.  Also, it will outline some of the ways to engage students, those in the health sciences and others, with these topics using the humanities and arts to better equip them for the particular challenges neuroscientific knowledge and technologies have brought to the fore. In this context the presenter will draw on four years of classroom experience teaching both Neuroethics and general medical humanities using these methods.

Examination of how we envision the nature of the human person is essential to adequately address many of the issues that increasing knowledge and technology in neuroscience has raised. Film, memoir and poetry, as well as insights from philosophy and religious studies, can usefully inform our decision-making and attitudes.  The visual arts, particularly portraiture and self-portraiture can give us special insight into the nature of the human person. The emergence of popular and scientific appreciation for the complexities of decision-making enable us to see why approaching a complex topic through the arts can give insight that can complement and enhance other kinds of analysis. The arts can enable us to enter into situations in ways beyond merely speculating on how we think we would feel in a given situation. Empathic engagement as well as enhanced sensibilities can result from the inclusion of the arts and humanities in these discussions.

The presentation will outline some of the issues and give specific examples of humanities and art resources that have been effectively used in teaching situations.

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the human person: possibilities for flourishing in dire circumstances

The Human Person: Possibilities for Flourishing in Dire Circumstances. Lynn Underwood. Hellenic Research Foundation, European Research Network. Athens, Greece, September 21, 2007.

Abstract:

Even in the midst of suffering there can be opportunities for the human person to flourish. Of course we do not seek suffering and continually seek to relieve the suffering of self and others. One positive aspect of dire circumstances is that various false illusions and assumptions do not hold up once exposed to situations such as disability, chronic disease, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include various assumptions about apparent self-sufficiency, functionalism (seeing ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings”), the place of suffering, our delusions of control, and the fact of mortality. The exposure provided by dire circumstances illuminates the actual situation in such a way that the core or “heart” of the person can be more fully revealed. Science, the arts, theology, philosophy, personal experiences and relationships with others can also provide insights into the nature of the human person when in extremis that can not only help to bear the burdens found in these situations, but actually help to enable human flourishing. There emerge implications for actions that we might take to improve the lives of those in dire circumstances, help us to learn from these situations, and also better handle dire circumstances when we encounter them ourselves.

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human being as revealed in disability

The Human Being as revealed more fully in Disability and In Extremis. Lynn Underwood. European Research Network meeting: The human person in the 21st Century. Thessaloniki, Greece, April 22-25, 2007.

Abstract:

Interaction with people with severe disabilities and chronic disease, people at end of life, and people in other dire circumstances can inform our understanding of the human person.  This can happen through personal and professional interactions and in the context of scientific research. Direct experience of dire circumstances in our own lives can also contribute to insight. When combined with theological, philosophical and artistic explorations these interactions and experiences can lead to further reflection on the core, or “heart,” of the human being, revealing the nature of the human being more fully. This exploration could also provide us with some questions to pursue in greater depth using the tools of the sciences and the humanities.

Various illusions and assumptions do not hold up as people are exposed to situations such as disability, extreme suffering or experiences at end of life. These include assumptions concerning self-sufficiency, functionalism, the place of suffering, the ability to control and mortality. People with disabilities have learned that receiving help does not diminish who they are and that it can actually enhance the human person. Likewise, the disabled person is at a disadvantage in the world constrained by functional evaluations. This realization can expose the fundamental value of a human being as not necessarily identical with their functional status or their physical selves. Suffering can encourage people to draw on the religious sphere, and open sufferers and others to the reality of the spiritual and its intrinsic importance in life.  In the process of suffering one can see more clearly that there is more to a full life than superficial happiness and the pursuit of that happiness. When disabled,  suffering serious chronic disease or in other dire circumstances, it becomes obvious that we are not in control and we are forced to see that sense of control is a delusion.  The realization that death is inevitable affects how someone views life itself, and the fundamental nature of the human person.  Being faced with these situations in extremis can more fully reveal the full nature of the human person.

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