Saturday, April 23, 2011

How we change

One other feature of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (2010) particularly caught my eye: the story of Louie Zamperini's experience of being saved as a Christian, after hearing the preaching of a young Billy Graham. I don't cite this as any proof of the unique truth of evangelical Christianity (not my faith), nor even as conclusive proof of any spiritual proposition -- though I wonder what makes religious words and perceptions sometimes so tremendously powerful, and whether that power really is only a psychological reaction by the person affected.

For now, though, I'm just interested in that psychological reaction. Zamperini, as Hildebrand recounts, was very troubled by the brutal degradation he'd experienced in Japan's prison camps during the war, and was gravely off balance back in California after it was over. He was drinking heavily (338, 363); married impulsively and saw his marriage seeming to fail (338-44, 362-67); and was dreaming of the guard who had most tormented him (338, 350). His efforts to refocus, by training to regain the running form that had taken him to the Berlin Olympics in 1936, went disastrously wrong as he over-exerted himself and blew out an ankle already injured during the war (350-51).

And then, after his wife persuaded him -- much against his will (371) -- to go to Billy Graham's revival preaching in September, 1949, he remembered a moment in the war when, near death in an open raft on the Pacific after his plane had crashed, he had promised God that “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” (375) That recollection completed something going on inside him. Back at his apartment, he poured his liquor down the sink. He never dreamt of the guard again. (376) His life was restored to him.

What most astonishes me about this story is that it seems that a single experience, perhaps even a single deeply recalled memory, transformed him. Post-traumatic stress disorder, which Zamperini and many other US soldiers held by the Japanese seem to have suffered (346-49), is presumably -- like every mental event -- a physical condition. Brain cells connect, react, in physical ways -- ways that I would assume are more and more deeply established as physical, neural patterns as the sufferer's state worsens.

If our habits of mind are deeply grooved physical processes, we can perhaps understand how a succession of thoughts, over months or years, might slowly carve new patterns of feeling and experience, as rivers carve canyons through rock. Often that is how people grow and change. But not always.

Sometimes, it seems, a thought can change a mind’s functioning in a single fundamental reordering of mental processes. This sudden transformation doesn’t come out of the blue, I’m sure; the person transformed has suffered and sought release for a long, painful time. That long suffering may have marked, or accompanied, a gradual accumulation of mental resources aimed at restoring the mind to health. But still, at a particular moment a particular thought operates on the mind like an earthquake on the planet – rearranging the massive tectonic plates of our minds. Whether religion has anything integrally to do with such moments or not, the effect does seem a bit miraculous.

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