I read once that when a neurosurgeon touches a spot on the human brain with a probe, he elicits memories. All kinds of memories: a moment in childhood, a school day, a family vacation from years past. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings. Pain and pleasure, fear and fury and fun. Whatever is stored on that particular neural tract, on the slender, myelin-wrapped pathway, is revealed by the surgeon’s gentle touch.
It’s a sobering thought. That means that everything we have thought and said and done—little kindnesses and base betrayals, virtues and sins—is still there somewhere. We think we’ve gotten over the hurt of a high school rejection, we’ve quit smoking, we’ve left behind our childish habits; but those things are part of the mix, kneaded into the dough of our experience and contributing to the flavor of our very being.
We are who we are today—but just as surely, we are who we have always been.
The story was brought to mind recently by news reports of Maggie Meier, a young hoops star from Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kansas. Maggie became ill in 2008 with mycoplasma meningoencephalitis, a rare, intense form of meningitis. She was in a coma for nearly three months; and during that time, she couldn’t speak or write or recognize family or friends.
What Maggie could do, though, was shoot basketballs. The movements required to drive a basketball into the hoop were “so ingrained as one of Maggie’s basic instincts,” explained her neurologist, that her body remembered how to do it before she could walk or even stand.
The point I’m trying to make here is that for Maggie, the repetition of shooting hoops—the feel of the basketball in her hands, the swoop of her arms toward the basket—had been deeply imprinted in her brain.
You are what you do.
Lent is a good time to reflect on this—to realize that on the Day of Judgment, we will stand before God and, like the surgeon touching a probe to our myelin strands, He will expose all that we have done, all that we have been. Words spoken in haste, lies told to protect our reputations, traffic laws violated when no one’s looking, schemes to move up the social ladder: Like Adam and Eve, we will be aware of our nakedness and will blush in shame.
How can we evade this fate? We can’t.
But starting today, starting right now, we can begin to paper over the weaknesses, the embarrassing trivia of our lives, with memories that will stand up to Christ’s scrutiny.
We can give freely of ourselves to friends and strangers. We can smile at small children and at the homeless man on the street. We can say “I love you” whenever possible. We can murmur prayers, sweet ejaculations of praise, as we go about our day. In time, we will find those prayers on our lips as we open our eyes to the morning sun; and it is then that they will be imprinted on our neural pathways, etched in myelin.
And when the day comes—when our life on this earth is over and when at last we rest in the arms of the Father—we will have a great blanket of love to cover over the offenses and shortcomings. We will still blush, as any imperfect thing blushes in the presence of great purity and light. But we will hold up our gift of love, grateful to have something to offer—glad to have, in our lives, magnified the meager talents we were given.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.