When I was a college senior, I met the woman I would be married to for many years. It was not easy going. I was still very early in my process of just beginning to understand my birth family circumstances, just beginning to name it as dysfunction and trauma, just beginning to start the journey of recovery. Every day my heart hurt. You don’t emerge from a life-long chronically threatening environment in any other way. I was anxious, cranky, and judgmental. I never felt like I belonged, I always felt like a bother. I felt unworthy. I felt withered.
I was 22 years old.
I did have a friend, though, who never failed me. My journal. Writing was asbestos to my burning heart—it helped me handle the flames within. But it wasn’t enough. I wish it could have been. It would have made everything simpler. But the deep craving for live human contact persisted. I could not shake it. I was like Vincent Van Gogh when he said, “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” I wanted someone to see beyond the wisps to the great fire! I longed for that! It did not matter that from my earliest years I had learned over and over again the lesson that people are dangerous and the ones you love and most depend on hurt you.
Still, I craved.
Invariably I’d find my way to busy places: entrances to buildings, or inside cafeterias. I would be alone, standing, sitting. Sounds of conversation washing over me, sounds of crowds and sounds of laughter. I was in it but not of it. And the one thing I rarely did was look people in the eye. I shied away from eye contact. I kept my face flat, I kept my face closed, I kept my face cold. Nothing to see here. Just walk on by. I don’t need you. Even though in truth I was like Vincent Van Gogh!
One day, Laura, the woman I was to be married to for 20+ years, found me in the cafeteria. She came up to me, and though I was scribbling furiously in my journal, eyes trained on the page, I could sense someone. She just stood there. I kept writing, hoping she’d go away. She didn’t. She just stayed there. I wondered what was happening. Finally I looked. Laura. Irritation flashed through me. Then I did what I normally didn’t do: look into her eyes. And what I saw was this: that she saw beyond the wisps of smoke, to the fire. She saw that! She saw me! I was seen!
It was the start of feeling like, after everything, I might yet belong to something actually good…
And THIS is how I come, today, to the question of belonging. Acknowledging that no one comes to it as a blank slate, tabula rasa. Acknowledging ambivalence. On the one hand, we have all been hurt before—to one degree or another. We’ve all been let down. But on the other hand, the deep craving for human contact persists. We cannot shake it.
But why? Let’s go a little deeper here. Exactly why is the longing for connection indestructible?
Now I want to point out that this is just not any congregation. This is a Unitarian Universalist congregation, which means that (among other things) we believe religion and science go hand-in-hand. The conversation going back and forth between them can be a positive one. So, to answer the question before us, we’re going to look to a scientific discipline known as “relational neuroscience.” In her book Four Ways to Click, Dr. Amy Banks M.D. says that relational neuroscience shows “that there is hardwiring throughout our brains and bodies designed to help us engage in satisfying emotional connections with others. This hardwiring [she says] includes four primary neural pathways…. [W]hen we are cut off from others, these neural pathways suffer. The result is a neurological cascade that can result in chronic irritability and anger, depression, addiction, and chronic physical illness.”
That’s it. The longing for connection is indestructible because it’s not a choice. It’s an intrinsic part of our design as human beings. We can’t NOT long as Vincent Van Gogh longed. OF COURSE I positioned myself at entrances to buildings and inside cafeterias so that I could be among people, even though I was also afraid of them…
Dr. Banks mentioned four neural pathways, and it would be good for us to get acquainted. Briefly, they are
- The smart vagus, which enables us to moderate stress through social connections (rather than through fighting or fleeing or freezing). It’s linked to some facial expression muscles, to hearing and speech, and to swallowing. When the smart vagus is working right, you are able to hear and see what people are actually saying and doing, and if people are friendly, you go calm.
- The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, which is a complex alarm system that tells you that you’re being left out and it’s dangerous! It’s been shown that the alarm system triggers the same sort of pain that real physical hurts cause. There’s nothing wimpy about the pain of being left out. When the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is working right, the alarm goes off when you really are being left out and not at any other time.
- The mirroring system, which allows us to feel a deep-in-the-bones connection with others. When it’s working right, you feel resonance with others–empathy. It allows our hands to feel warm when another person rubs theirs; it allows us to sense a friend’s sorrow before they even tell you about it.
- The dopamine pathway directly connected to relationships known as the mesolimbic pathway, which rewards experiences of growth-fostering relationships with a shot of positive energy and feelings of elation and zest. When it’s working right, the shot of dopamine is paired with positive human contact and not something else.
That’s the four neural pathways which give structure to the human instinct to belong. And did you notice that, with each of them, I said, “when it’s working right”? This takes us right back to ambivalence. Because when a neural pathway’s functioning is under or over or is in some other way compromised, as it was for me, given the circumstances I grew up in, belonging becomes a problem.
Relational neuroscience shows that when the smart vagus is underfunctioning (or has “poor tone”) what happens is that a person has a hard time seeing and hearing what is actually happening around them. They misinterpret neutrality and even friendliness as aggression! They also make things worse by avoiding eye contact and evincing other nonverbal behaviors that come across as uncaring and even hostile. They are chronic blamers. They are on a short fuse. The smart vagus is not so smart after all…
Or take the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Problems happen when it overfunctions and the “I’m being left out!!” alarm is constantly screaming. The endless alarm digs a deep hole in your heart until you could swear to God that you are completely unworthy of belonging and fated always to be left out. Often the result is living a paradox: you hide whatever parts of yourself you feel you need to so that you can be more attractive to others; but by hiding anything about yourself you just trigger more pain and also further reinforce the feeling of being unworthy. But (you counter) if I just let it all hang out, I’d drive people away, and that’s also pain. And there you have it: the insane paradox you get stuck in, because your dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is messed up.
Equally troublesome things happen when the mirroring system and the mesolimbic pathway aren’t functioning right. With the former, you feel cut off from others; with the latter, your brain has learned to UNpair feeling good with belonging. Shots of dopamine are triggered by gambling instead, or drinking, or workaholism, or video gaming, or some other kind of addiction. The dopamine-based motivation to experience real, live human connection has gone underground.
Now at this point you might be wondering whether this is a sermon or a lecture in neuroscience! So let’s go straight to a big part of the sermon message: you are not to blame. You have a hard time recognizing the friendliness of friendly people and your nonverbals are so off-putting that you can make friendly people less friendly, even unfriendly. It’s not your fault. The soul crushing feeling of being unworthy and a bother never seems to stop, and hiding parts of yourself makes it better and makes it worse. It’s not your fault. You don’t feel the mirroring effect with others; you feel caught behind a stiff mask, and others appear the same way to you. It’s not your fault. Long ago you stopped relying on other people to be a source of pleasure, and you go elsewhere, maybe to unsavory elsewheres. It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault.
There are things to do to make it better, and I am about to get into that. But I really want you to hear what I’m saying right now. Some of you are survivors of family situations as bad as mine, or maybe even worse, and it’s not your fault that you bear the scars in nothing less than your neural pathways. But it’s about all of us too. All of us are members of a larger culture that force-feeds us a mythology of lone rangers and going it alone and heroic individualism and “you are mature to the degree you can stand isolated and alone.” That leaves a scar too. It is not your fault.
It means that when we’re struggling with belonging, don’t see yourself as pathetic and broken. Don’t blame. Reframe. Don’t blame. Reframe! One or more of your neural pathways is in a rut. We all know this: our brains are sculpted by the early environments we grew up in. But we also know or should know the genuine good gospel news of neuroplasticity, which means that old ruts are never permanent. They aren’t like sins which require supernatural blood of the lamb to erase, otherwise they persist into all eternity and condemn us to everlasting hell. No. Hear the gospel of neuroplasticity, which says that brains can change. It takes time, but they do change. Just work at it.
Work out your salvation with diligence!
To this end, Dr. Amy Banks and other relational neuroscientists offer any number of things to do. Here, I’ll suggest just a few, and they are all things we can do as part of our belonging to this Beloved Community.
One is to take our Covenant of Healthy Relationships seriously. The short form is right inside the front cover of the worship bulletin.
We will be mindful of how we communicate with and about others.
We will seek a peaceful and constructive resolution process when conflicts arise.
We will celebrate the diversity within our community.
We will build the common good.
This is just another way of saying, let’s hold dangerous people accountable for their actions. Let’s make this place less dangerous and more safe. And guess what the recipe is for strengthening the smart vagus? Exactly that!
Another solution is to get involved with a covenant group, where you can know others deeply, and be deeply known in return. The neuroscientists say that one of the ways of soothing a hyperactive dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is to start to unveil hidden parts of yourself, progressively—to take the risk of revealing who you really are, one piece at a time. Covenant groups are ideal places for that.
Yet another solution is to participate in worship rituals. You know when I ask you to put hand to heart in the Embracing Meditation? The neuroscientists say that such physical rituals also calm down a hyperactive dorsal anterior cingulate cortex that’s screaming you are unworthy, that’s screaming you don’t belong… But every time you put hand to heart and you say “I will love myself, I will love others, and that love will heal the world,” you are working to heal a neural pathway in your brain.
Also don’t forget the receiving line after worship. Hugs given and received—when they are safe—heal neural pathways. And they are absolutely safe. They come with simple love and no strings attached.
This is your Beloved Community. And I want you to know that the meaning of that is fundamental. Belonging to this place changes our brains for the better. You can’t do it all by yourself, all alone. Our bodies won’t allow for it. Only through belonging can we work out our salvation with diligence!
Look someone in the eye today. Let them know that you see beyond the wisps of smoke to their fire. Let them know you see them.
And let yourself be seen. Believe that you are worthy, and loved. Loved by a love larger than you can know. Believe, and then act.
Lift up your face,
look back at the person looking at you,
see and be seen.