Come and See
Come and See
Today’s scripture is a story of grace … the undeserved grace of a father for his prodigal son and the abiding grace of the father for his older faithful son … evidence of a father’s choice to love carelessly when others might have expected caution or constraint. I don’t know the rest of the story, though … whether the prodigal returned to his wastrel ways or whether the faithful son recovered from his initial jealousy or spite … but I don’t suppose that was the point of this parable.
I do know a little about choosing how to feel, however. I learned it from a woman I met in 1969. She was an entomologist by training … a lover of the natural world … and she shared her sense of joy and wonder with me for the 42 years that I knew her. When she died in 2012, her family stumbled across a grammar school journal written in her hand and dated January 1st, 1923 … written in her hand as a 6 year old child. It was a list of her New Year’s resolutions.
The fact that her resolutions were recorded on paper instead of a slate tablet shows that they were of significance. They were “real” resolutions … not the lighthearted “lose weight” or “spend less time on the computer” sort of things we make today. They were a child’s goals for living recorded on paper … paper she kept in her possession for more than 90 years. These were her resolutions:
Do better … Work harder … Keep smiling … Be cheerful
From the mouth of babes. Una consciously chose to own her emotional destiny rather than simply experience it. She consciously chose to be happy; and she lived out that choice to the end of her days.
There is an intriguing question floating around the scientific community today … a question about if and when artificial intelligence will become self-aware … conscious, if you will. In this age of meta-data, it’s pretty obvious computers already “know” more than humans. If you doubt that, just think about how many times this week you’ve consulted the artificial intelligence you carry in your purse or pocket about something it knows and you don’t. Yet, you are conscious, and it is not. Apparently consciousness involves more than just knowing … it involves knowing that you know … somehow.
In this narrow field of inquiry, there is a growing consensus that self awareness is somehow connected to the physical senses … sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and a couple I didn’t learn in high school biology … the vestibular senses from the inner ear of movement and balance … and the proprioceptive sense of body awareness. When input from the receptors of each of these senses reaches the developing brain of an infant, it is slowly integrated into a cerebral map of the physical self. We have all witnessed those “Aha” moments when babies 1st begin to realize that the hands and feet they see actually belong to them. And yet, we can attach a whole array of sensors to the most sophisticated central processors of AI, and none of them suddenly wakes up saying: “I think I am, therefore I am.” Why not?
The missing element in artificial intelligence may well be the absence of emotion … not some kind of algorithm or phony emotion, but intrinsic self-generated emotion. In our brains, our limbic system processes memory and emotion simultaneously. Every memory is tagged with an emotional cloud derived from the sensory input at the time it is stored. Even before an infant can focus on it’s mother’s face, it has begun to connect the fuzzy image it perceives to other senses … of smell … and touch … and warmth. And that process continues for as long as we have breath. That’s why hearing a familiar hymn can evoke such an unexpected rush of emotion … the hymn is connected to companion emotions, and they arise in together in our memories.
Okay … I can see how you could be getting a little concerned. No, I’ve wandered off on a tangent … I’m still talking about a father’s choice to love. Here’s the connection: Human emotion resides in that space between the conscious and the subconscious. Emotions are always there … sometimes they are beneath the surface … and sometimes we are aware of them. In those moments when we are aware of them, we can consciously influence them. You might ask how that is possible? Our emotional brain subconsciously attaches basic emotions to our memories … without consulting our conscious self at all. But each time we remember some moment from our history; we can consciously choose how it is re-remembered. We can, for instance, dwell on a sad memory and each time we think of it we will reinforce its sadness … OR … we can find a bit of happiness within that same memory where none seemed to exist previously. At the next recall, the happy bit will be attached to the memory. It won’t change the memory, but it will influence the emotional context with which it is next perceived. It is this editing ability of memory that can animate more complex emotions like admiration, joy … and, of course, love.
I recently learned a lesson in how the context with which we choose to see things can change the way we actually feel. It has long been my custom to talk to my fellow drivers on the roadways in a rather unforgiving tone. After one particularly acerbic comment, my wife, Nancy, suggested that I use an old southern affectation for those who we wish to criticize … she suggested that I preface anything I had to say with: “Bless their hearts.” I was amused, but I tried it … “Bless his heart, he doesn’t know how to give a signal” … Bless her heart, she doesn’t see me” … Bless his heart, he shouldn’t be allowed on the road” … and the result was surprising to say the least. If my first thought about someone was “Bless their heart,” the thoughts that followed were never as negative as my first reaction. In fact, often I don’t get past the “Bless their heart” any more. Conscious emotional choices matter, and they can change how we feel about ourselves and about others.
We can choose to LOVE as the prodigal son’s father … love without constraint, when constraint would seem more natural.
We can choose to FEEL LOVED as the prodigal son … loved when we know ourselves unworthy of it.
We can choose to FEEL BELOVED as a faithful son should, even when others may seem to be more blessed or more privileged.
I believe God’s love is like that … unconditional … undeserved … and abiding by choice. And if it is, my cup can never half-empty or half-filled … it is continuously refilled … from without and from within … filled to the brim … if I choose it to be. Let it be so.