DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Digging Deeper

Written by: on January 16, 2015

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement is about the modern life of humans. It explores attachment, parenting, education, love, family, culture, achievement, marriage, politics, morality, aging, and death by exploring a wide range of disciplines, including evolutionary psychology, neurobiology, cognitive science, behavioral economics, and education theory. Given the table of contents, I expected The Social Animal to be a dry recitation of facts, but Brooks structured his book in an unorthodox way. Instead of a chapter on evolutionary psychology, followed by one on child development,  he tells a story!! Following Rousseau’s approach in Émile, Brooks makes his larger points within a fictional narrative. His main characters are Harold and his wife Erica. The plot extends all the way from the day Harold’s parents meet to the day Harold dies, yet it takes place in a perpetual present-day America. This literary creativity is presumably intended both to keep my attention and to provide a natural frame for all the research that Brooks reports. So as the characters in his narrative live through childhood, we hear about the science of child development, and as they begin to date, we hear about the biochemistry of sexual attraction…which completely made me blush.

Brooks moves so fast there is little opportunity to distinguish the established findings from the unlikely ones, and no chance to follow up on some of the more interesting claims. He tells us in a sentence that taller men get paid more, but says nothing about the fascinating question of why this is so. Some of the fun facts are far less exciting. There is an occasional drift into neuro-psycho-babble – phrases about brain parts and neurotransmitters that sound scientific and substantive but don’t add anything to his argument. After all, why do we care how many neural connections a baby makes in a second? What does that even mean?!

In The Social Animal, Brooks tries to advance a broad thesis – we overvalue cognitive function, analytical reasoning and autonomous behavior as the motors of success, and we undervalue emotion, intuition, and social influence. With that broadness, the book grows into a strange hybrid – part scientific figures, part impassioned argument, part self-help, part satire, and part melodramatic novel. Nevertheless, a central argument emerges. Brooks believes success and happiness, and the kind of politics that make these possible for the greatest number of people, depend greatly on an understanding of “the inner mind – the unconscious realm of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms.”[1]

As I read through this book last week, I was sitting under a shade tree in a little village off the beaten path in Mukono, Uganda. (Yes, I find a good tree in every country!) Uganda has quickly become one of my “homes.” The people, the emotions, the sights, the contradictions, the nature, the music, the colors. They combine to create what is known as the “Pearl of Africa.”

Before even reaching Passport Control at the airport, we waited in a terribly long line to be checked for Ebola, and there were numerous signs peppering the columns.

This one held my attention for the hour:

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At the risk of repeating what Deve said in his post, though not nearly as eloquently, relationships are at the core of our existence. We crave the desire to love and to be loved. Brooks emphasized this point in his own way, explaining our interconnectivity with our mirror neurons. “We automatically simulate others, and understand what others feel by feeling a version of what they are experiencing, in ourselves.”[1] Reading this, I wonder, can we ever entirely feel the exact way as others feel? We feel through our own filter, our own worldview. Our previous experiences shape us and effect our simulation of others.

I read these words and took notice of the teenagers surrounding me. Last summer, while under this same shade tree, I listened intently, one-on-one, to many of their stories. It was an effort to record their personal history and communicate it to their “sponsors” in the USA, to establish a deeper connection, a deeper relationship. Listening, hour after hour, was emotionally heart-wrenching. These children come from all walks of life with horrendous pains and struggles. They have experienced more in their short lives than I will ever experience for the rest of my life. I cried along with them. I hugged them. I felt their pain, but did I really feel their pain?

While I loved Brooks’ in depth psychological and scientific analysis, I circled round to something I am more familiar with – the Holy Spirit. Because of God, because of His Spirit living and breathing amongst and within us, I can empathize with the children in Mukono. We, as humans, may not be able to truly live in another’s shoes, but our relationship through God brings us together as children and family to connect and feel each other pain. Have you ever had that moment where you are sitting, listening to someone, and you can quite literally shoulder their emotions? Perhaps that is what we call intercession? That may be the moment the Holy Spirit is crying out and asking us to hold tight, to feel what they feel, and connect our hearts in this greater family of God.

And this led me to Jesus. I remember reading of one of his miracles and completely embodying the feelings of the woman following Jesus in the crowd. I thought of her story. She’d been sick for dozens of years. She’d run out of doctors, money, even hope. Her friends abandoned her, her church neglected her, and she hadn’t been home in years. But then Jesus came to town. The crowd was thick, people were pushing, but she was desperate. She followed Jesus at a distance and gradually inched closer to Him until there were only two people between Him and her. She pressed her arm through the crowd and reached for the hem of His jacket. And when she did, her body changed. She stopped, letting the crowd go by her. But He stopped too. “Who touched me?” He asked. She slid behind some tall men and said nothing. “Who touched me?” He asked again. He didn’t sound angry, just curious. So, she spoke up – her hands and voice shook. Jesus stepped toward her and asked to hear her story. I imagine everyone waiting and waiting as Jesus listened. The crowd waiting; the city leaders waiting; a girl was dying, people were pressing, disciples questioning, but Jesus – He was listening. Listening to her whole story. He didn’t have to. The healing would have been enough, but Jesus wanted to do more than heal her body – He wanted to hear her story. The miracle restored her health, the kindness, listening and social connection restored her dignity.

The real connection is through story, through relationship. Jesus exemplified that through listening and loving and teaching. The children in Mukono were courageous enough to share their stories. We must be ready to be social animals – not just listening and observing, but entering deeper into relationship and sharing. That’s what I got out of the book anyway! 🙂

 

[1] David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (London: Short Books, 2011), Loc. 64.

[2] Ibid., 38

About the Author

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Ashley Goad

Ashley is the Global Missions Pastor at First United Methodist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. She's a UNC fanatic, Haiti Enthusiast, Clean Water Activist, Solar Power Supporter... www.firstserves.org www.solarunderthesun.org www.livingwatersfortheworld.org

10 responses to “Digging Deeper”

  1. mm Julie Dodge says:

    Nicely done, Ashley. I had multiple thoughts as I read your post. First, no, I don’t think we can ever know exactly how another person feels. But I think we can hypothesize, based on our experiences, and the more experiences we have, the broader our ability to project what we think they may feel – empathize.

    Why do I care about how many neurotransactions are occurring every second in a baby’s brain? Because it leaves me in awe of God. I am stunned by the detail and intricacy of his creation, and humbled by our responsibility to nurture and support this development in one another. If we are ever humbled by the awesome display of stars in the galaxy, all with their perfect place, how much more so by the reality that there’s a galaxy in all of our brains, and every little detail of every little neurotransmission in the active minds of six or seven billion people are known by God. And He is not confused.

    Yes, relationship. Oh the beauty and necessity of relationship. It is how we are known, how we grow, how we gain health. And apart from Christ, those relationships will always fall short. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are made to be in relationship – with God and with one another. The missing part of Brooks’ work is indeed God, because He fills the gaps of our humanity.

    • Ashley says:

      Julie,

      You always do so well at bringing our reading back around to God. As you have noticed, He is often the “missing link” in much of our reading. He connects and binds together impossible forces and people. His Spirit spurs passion and interest that we could never cultivate. He is the God, afterall, who created lanolin, a group of cells in the shape of a cross. As you, I stand in awe of the minute creations and actions of His world and people. Wow. Just writing that makes me go “wow.” 🙂

  2. Deve Persad says:

    Got to tell you, Ashley, this was an excellent post to read (and not because you mentioned my name…but it probably didn’t hurt). Thanks for helping us to appreciate the picture of you and the young people in Uganda, sitting under the tree and listening to their stories. It certainly gives truth to your own words related to the story of Jesus: “The miracle restored her health, the kindness, listening and social connection restored her dignity.” Through the time taken to listen to another’s story; through time given from us to them, dignity and worth are conveyed. My question for you, is probably a continuation of something we talked about in SA – how do adequately transfer that relationship to your home church – so that they value the relationship more than the project?

    • Ashley says:

      Deve, I’ll be sure to mention you more often!! … I continue to wrestle with your question everyday. One minor breakthru I had in last semester’s essay was the fact that most mission partnerhips are driven, or even created, by a project…and out of the project grows the relationship. With all the studying and reading and experiencing I’ve been doing…I wonder…should it be the other way around? Should instead a project be the result of a relationship? Should there be communicating, visits, meals and dreams shared…and then if the time comes later, a project can be a part of just one of the visits? But back to your question…how do we create the buy in for the relationship instead of the project… Let’s write a dissertation on that!!

  3. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ashley, we share the same homes, Uganda, America and Haiti!! 🙂 Another enjoyable post and indeed clear way of reflecting through Brook’s material. During the study of Brook’ work, it was at times tempting to wonder from the many details yet I was also constantly pulled back by the amazing fact about humanity. God ability to created human beings is mind blasting!
    Brook’s book brings the complexities of relating to bear. As shown by the billboard, even companies are digging for relationships perhaps testing whether cooperation can be personable. Yet, as you put it, with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God’s word, we can know about God’s desire to know us, as we are invited to know Hi and make Him known. That is powerful stuff and sometime brings out all sorts of instincts out of human beings. Here I reminded of your sentence, “We must be ready to be social animals – not just listening and observing, but entering deeper into relationship and sharing. That’s what I got out of the book anyway.”

    Thank you

    • Ashley says:

      Michael, this is why we work together so well — we do share the same homes! We come from the same people! 🙂 I do stand in awe of God and His magnificent creation. Not only am I looking out to an incredibly Carolina blue sky and green grass, but I saw His beauty maginfied in so many individuals this morning during worship services. The hugs, the handshakes, the quick conversations, the beauty of His people gathering in one place. Yes, He made the Grand Canyon, but He made something even more grand and complex — human beings. He even made Laminin — which is a protein that literally is the glue to all of our cells, holding us together, and when you look at laminin, it is in the shape of the Cross. Everything He did and does is intentional. Wow. If He cares that much about the smallest of our cells and about our relationship with Him, it is much time for me to dig deeper into my relationship with Him and with others. So powerful.

      Hugs, my brother!

  4. Lovely post, Ashley! Loved it. I especially loved your astute overview of Brooks book. Yes, I blushed too. 🙂

    Yes, life is ultimately about relationships. They are everything. But they are not always easy. They are the best part of life and the worst part of life. People bless us and they hurt us. Thankfully, there are those inner-circle relationships we have that are life-sustaining. I have a couple of friends who will remain friends for life. Even if we disagree, we remain friends.

    And then there is relationship with God. He never stops loving me. I believe this, though I don’t understand it.

    I teach a class called Faith, Living, and Learning. The focus of the class is the human condition and how life sometimes influences our faith and visa versa. What happens when God feels distant? How does that affect our faith? What happens when tragedy strikes? Where is God then? Part of my curriculum for this semester’s class in that we watch the film, “The Count of Monte’ Cristo.” It is a great film for this class. Weaved through the story is God’s presence. Is God there even through the pain, the suffering, the injustices of life? These are huge questions without easy answers and sometimes with no answers at all. My students all have different stories. They are all trying to figure out where God ultimately fits into their stories. And, like them, I too am trying to figure out where God fits into my story. We need to let each person figure this mystery out. It is a gift to be able to help my students navigate these mysteries.

    • Ashley says:

      Bill! Buddy! Happy New Year! How can I enroll in one of your classes?? 🙂 I love that you are tackling such meaty questions. I think some pastors and leaders are afraid to even look at those topics, let alone try to answer them. I love your conclusion – everyone is different and everyone has a different relationship with God. Mine is different from yours. Yours is different from Michael’s. Each person is special and unique and connects to God in their own way. That is a good reminder, that though we connect differently, our individual relationships to Him are no less important. Nor should we ever stop seeking Him and evolving our relationship with Him. You are the perfect person to help your students question, ponder, seek and navigate. Bless you, Bill!!

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    So, I suppose Brooks would phrase it differently, but I think it fits the narrative — the Holy Spirit. 🙂 Yes. Completely. In the midst of Brooks moving beyond cognition and quantification this too should easily fit into his schema.
    Personally, I think Brooks would like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. I wonder…?
    Certainly, Brooks considers the idea of people believing in the divine as a source of connective meaning. You’ve done such a wonderful job of redelivering Brooks’ work — which was also a redelivering of the work of other people — and adding your own character to it. Thanks.
    I loved your telling of the story of Jesus with the woman who touched his garment. I well see how this fits with Brooks’ text. However, most importantly, I thought your story was powerfully written and I will likely share it with others. Thanks, yet again.

  6. Wow Ashley! Your writing keeps getting better and better. You summarized the book with all of the heady academic jargon but then took us into a story that was so well written and impacting as you connected the realities of the Mukono children with the vivid example of our Lord. Oh to be more like Him. The world is clamoring with a cacophony of demands for our attention but the Master focuses on the one. Oh to be like Jesus! Help me Father.

    You did hit on a real reality when you wrote: “I wonder, can we ever entirely feel the exact way as others feel? We feel through our own filter, our own worldview. Our previous experiences shape us and effect our simulation of others.” So true, so true. We try. We listen. We hug. We may even weep with those that weep but oh it so often feels that we are providing plastic flowers to the enormous grief that we are witnessing. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can even come close to having empathy for others. May we be continually baptized in His Spirit to truly be people of empathy. Again Ashely, so well written and devotionally and wonderfully challenging. Keep on writing.

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