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Brain Block

When my children think I'm threatening their autonomy, they get angry. They run out of the room or shout about the unfairness of my instructions. They aren't capable of listening to me or understanding my reasoning. They're closed off and often remain so until after their anger dies down or the impending consequences compels them to obey in deed, if not in spirit.

I think the reason they can't listen or understand me when they get angry is because they go into survival mode, self-preservation mode, or as I'd like to call it, brain block. They are unable to accept any new information because they are too busy protecting themselves from a perceived threat to their happiness, i.e. my command for them to stop playing and pick up their socks.

It is the same with me. When I share my ideas with someone, and they cross-examine me, I feel my mind growing blurry, preventing me from speaking or thinking straight. I feel afraid that the cross-examiner will misunderstand me or ridicule my ideas, or perhaps my ideas are wrong and I'll look the fool. So I go into self-preservation mode. I have a brain block. I can't listen to the other person or empathize with them. Certainly not! As long as I'm worried about my own welfare, I'm incapable of thinking about their's.

I think the Bible talks about brain block too but in different words. It talks about the Israelites having brain block when they were too afraid for their own survival to recognize that the Lord was providing for them. It talks about how Jesus was angry and grieved at the Pharisees because instead of having compassion for the man with a withered hand, the Pharisees were more interested in catching Jesus in the wrong. In fact, the Pharisees had to catch Jesus in the wrong because Jesus was threatening their source of goodness, control, and esteem.

It was the same with Pharaoh in Exodus. He felt his sense of control and power undermined by Moses and Yaweh, so he experienced brain block. He couldn't sympathize with the slaves or even think of letting the people go. He was trying to preserve himself. His brain was blocked from accepting the truth because it was too busy trying to cope with the circumstances.

Perhaps this is the same phenomenon referred to as "filter theory" in Barbara Metz and John Burchill's book The Enneagram and Prayer: Discovering Our True Selves Before God.

"In this theory, the brain and nervous system are fitted with restrictive filters and barriers of some kind which prevent total reality from entering consciousness, only permitting the entrance of such knowledge as a human being needs for survival. The filters screen reality for the human being and act as a repressive mechanism calculated to impede the entrance of knowledge that would otherwise overwhelm us. Thus the screen is protective, for humankind, unable to bear too much reality, has to find a way of blocking things out." (Burchill and Metz, 13-14)

What if we cannot accept new truths so long as we're trying to protect ourselves? What if my children can't incline their own hearts to obey so long as they fear their lives aren't going to be good? What if I can't listen to an opposing argument so long as I'm relying on my own wisdom? What if I can't hear the other side of the story because I'm using my version to prove my own goodness?

It makes sense. Certainly we know that we cannot love others until we know we're thoroughly and unconditionally loved. We cannot influence justice or bring about any sort of righteousness until we stop trying to procure our own and others' righteousness.

What then shall we do? How does anyone stop striving to secure his or her own safety, love, goodness, and control? By trusting that God has and will do it for us. God has supplied our righteousness through Christ's life and death. He has proved his love to us through that. He desires to teach us the knowledge of good and evil through a relationship with him, and he has promised us that whatever happens, it is to our good and his glory. 

So long as I trust in him, I can accept new truths, love others, and not fear for my future. Hallelujah!


Burchill, John O.P. and Metz, Barabara. The Enneagram and Prayer: Discovering Our True Selves Before God. Denville: Dimension Books, Inc, 1987.

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