Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kay's Toothbrush & the Makings of Miracles

If everyone believes in something, implicitly or explicitly, perhaps the real foundation of my belief  is belief in belief. Or, more precisely, belief in the power of the mind to move a person to seemingly miraculous achievements and a "reality" otherwise unimaginable without this trick of faith.

I refer to this as a trick of faith from the cold, cruel standpoint of an outsider. If you don't share someone's belief system,  their world view, gods, and "miracles" may look delusional, silly, weird, desperate--even dangerous if they lead to unrealistic expectations or harmful behaviors.

Consider Kay's toothbrush. Our dear friend, Kay Ledingham, must be 93 now -- but don't go "Cluck-cluck, sweet old dear." Kay still has a very firm grip on her numerous and bodacious marbles. She has been a spiritual counselor to several people over the past decade and hosts a weekly Bible discussion group in her home. Over the course of her life, Kay has variously been a wife, mother, dog-breeder and trainer, commander of an airbase during WWII, church warden, and psychiatrist.

Kay is a trove of wonderful stories. One concerns her advice to clients when they were deeply stuck and couldn't find their way out of some rut: "Get yourself a new toothbrush." She says, in point of fact, this advice worked well for many people.

Or consider the miracle of Pip, the first grandchild of another dear friend. Pip was born months premature -- at about the term the National Health Service  considers the minimum gestation needed for viability outside the womb. Mother Charlotte first asked for prayers just that her pregnancy would hold up long enough for the baby to reach the critical gestation period. After delivery -- weighing 2 pounds -- baby Pip came through countless crises in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks after she was delivered. The statistical chances are slim for babies born so prematurely.

I was among many people relaying texts and emails asking the folks I know who pray to hold this baby, her family, and medical team in their prayers. What else could we do? There was an incredibly difficult bit of surgery needed to drain excessive fluid from the ventricles of Pip's brain -- surgery with low odds of success. The doctors decided to chance it, and Pip was one of the lucky ones.

Charlotte, her husband Pete, and my friend, "Granny" Sandra, deeply believe in the power of prayer. They are part of a lively independent chapel in a nearby village. They enjoy the contemporary, low-church, friendly atmosphere there. I'm sure there were many, many people at their church praying for Pip, as well as lending personal support to the family.

Jess, then our Team curate, preached on the miracle of baby Pip one Sunday. She had probably been getting Pip prayer request from several directions. "It worked," Jess claimed in church -- the power of prayer, demonstrated! I pointed out that the "miracle" was also a testimony to the skill and dedication of the National Health Service staff at the neonatal intensive care unit.

I'm happy to say that Pip continues to defy the odds. She's been nailing her developmental milestones. Fact. She's alert, lively, and growing up quickly, still a miracle baby to her Mum, Dad,  and Granny.

But was there a "real miracle" here? If so, was it due to the power of prayer? Or was it the family's faith and deep belief in the power of prayer -- like a placebo effect, which has been shown to be very real? Or was it due to the people around the family continually supporting their faith and encouraging them with love (which they repeatedly said they felt) and the way this support kept up their spirits through the ordeal (community support effect)? Or was it the way the family's spirit, love, and ferocious belief in Pip inspired the health workers caring for Pip to do their very best for this long-shot baby (infectious optimism)? Does she continue to defy the odds because the family is super-motivated to give the very best of care to their living Miracle?

Maybe this miracle is, ultimately, a complex, self-reinforcing series of beliefs, interactions, and events involving everyone within the circle of people surrounding Pip and her family which was the potent force that ultimately drove Pip's outcome out of the "expected" range and way, way up to the far end of the curve of potential outcomes.  Could this "miracle" be reproduced, and, if so, how -- what are the key ingredients?

 I don't now recollect how I stumbled upon it, but last week I  found my way to a wonderful little Esquire article, (be warned, folks, this IS Esquire, which is your typical men's magazine website...)  by A.J. Jacobs. Here's a taste:

Self-delusion is not a defense mechanism or coping technique. It’s the most human thing we have. It’s faith, existential courage, essential to mixing a decent drink, loving our spouse, writing a sentence. It’s what separates us from the animals and the boring. 
I’m not just advocating positive thinking; I’m advocating a willing suspension of reality. Irrational exuberance. It’s not a matter of seeing the glass as half full or half empty. In reality, the glass is usually 5 percent full and 95 percent empty. But you have to force yourself to believe that it’s half full so that you can engage and try to solve problems and bring the real percentage up to 10. Because otherwise it’d drop down to zero... 
Jacobs goes on to say that this willful self-delusion--telling himself that the audience would like him just fine--was what made him "not bomb" when giving a talk following the comedian Jonathan Winters (who got two standing ovations) on stage. This is small potatoes as miracles go, but it does show the low-end value of belief. Even when it's as flimsy as self-avowed self-delusion, your beliefs can potentially improve performance and nudge outcomes a bit toward the brighter side.

I'm not sure exactly how this or any other trick of faith or self-delusion works -- maybe it's a placebo effect, but do placebos work even if you know you're getting a 'useless' remedy? Is there some sort of "positive priming" effect whereby positive stimulation to the brain of one sort spills over to other brain functions? I've heard of this kind of thing -- for example, telling students that they are really working hard during an exam (whether they are or not) actually helps them perform better. Touching a soft piece of silk improves your mood. Or perhaps more relevantly, touching newborns reduces their chance of death.

Maybe the real question is not how beliefs or self-delusions work, but rather, which ones will work -- even bring "miracles" -- for a given person in a given situation. As St Augustine suggested, our beliefs can't change the laws of physics. Nor can they push back the hands of time or bring back the deceased. In this sense, there is no such thing as miracles. But I do believe that your beliefs, can --maybe, sometimes -- change the odds a bit -- in ways science does not (yet?) understand within the realm of possible outcomes. No more, but no less.

So take your pick. Believe in the power of a New Toothbrush, Prayer, or Self-Delusion. Believe in the power of Love, Communion, Community, Caring for Others, or the Power of Relationships. Believe in your Therapist, your Priest, Yourself, or in Positive Psychology. Believe in Science. Believe Research will eventually show us how to solve any problem. Believe in your Heroes and Role Models, Rock 'n Roll, Heaven, or your Church. Believe your late Loved One is just there, helping you through this moment. Believe in being Really Present, right here, right now. Believe in Mindfulness, in Listening to Silence. Believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Believe in the Tenets of your Faith, the Bible, Placebos, Nature, or Grace. Be Open to God. Believe the Holy Spirit will whisper Great Truths in your ear. Believe in Jesus.  Believe in the Three-in-One. Or just believe in Belief.

Hearing a few of my thoughts about "miracles" put my Dear Husband in a foul frame of mind. He is unhappy to hear that anyone is invoking the power of prayer in an un-nuanced way as the source of miracles. Dear Husband asks, What does that say  in the case of the two kids from our village who died of brain cancer? We all prayed for them, too! Those evangelicals just gloss over the times when people pray for miracles and they don't come. Or they say the people praying aren't part of the True Faith and God really doesn't love them. And there have been lots of instances in which belief has been exploited over the millennia -- Just send us money and we'll secure that needed miracle!

I repeat, faith cannot accomplish the physically impossible, so it's unwise to put your God to the test that way. It might be empowering to stretch your faith as far as you can; but disillusionment, heartache, and their fruit will come from the expectation that Your Preferred God will, on demand, accomplish the physically impossible -- i.e. work miracles as most people understand that word.  Honest faith purveyors will acknowledge that. Be on charlatan alert if someone asks you to pay to procure the impossible.

I realize it's difficult, even impossible, to know sometimes what does defy the laws of nature. And science is only beginning to understand the powers of faith and what's susceptible to its nudges.  Beyond this,  there are all the serendipitous, unbidden  "miracles" -- dazzling grace that brings not what you asked for, but something different--and even better! Does belief make that more likely? Or does it just make you more likely to notice and appreciate such gifts?

Finally, if lots of different beliefs can improve people's lives, it's just wrong to disparage other people's beliefs. [Moment of self-doubt here -- is that what I'm doing here???] It's wrong to exploit others through their beliefs. And, as Jonathan Haidt's book shows, people are going to believe what they're set to believe, so however excellent your gods, you really can't expect anyone else to share them. So stop proselytizing--if your neighbor's belief helps them (and doesn't hurt others) -- let the miracles flow!

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