I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do... I have the desire to
do what is good, but cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but
the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.
Romans 7:15, 18b-19
We’ve all had the experience of saying or doing something and immediately regretting it. “How could I have done that??!!” we wonder. For hundreds of years philosophers explained that our intellect and will constituted our “higher selves,” and that we needed to “subdue our passions.” We were encouraged to energetically scold ourselves, “Straighten up!” “Stop feeling that way!” "Get your act together!"
Which unfortunately doesn’t work very well. Those messy moments we all experience aren’t simply failures in character. Our brains aren’t designed to respond perfectly to vigorous self-talk, at least not when we’re emotionally upset. The more we understand how our brains do work, the more effectively we can steer ourselves toward greater peace and better behavior.
Neuroscientist Paul MacLean suggests the brain is divided into three basic parts. The theory described below is an oversimplification, but it holds enough truth to be useful in understanding ourselves:
So what? Why bother learning about this? It turns out the interaction among these three parts or our brains is one cause of our many human missteps. The limbic brain is designed to override our thinking brain in an emergency. If someone grabs you from behind on a dark street or your toddler suddenly starts to gag, you don’t have time to logically examine all your alternatives. It doesn’t matter what your attacker looks like or what precisely is giving your little one trouble. You need to take action. This aspect of brain function can work for us when we’re under immediate physical threat but against us in a disagreement with an employer or a loved one.
So do we just give up on urging ourselves to be more patient, understanding or generous? Obviously not. Instead, we can learn to use spiritual practices that touch our emotions directly in order predispose ourselves to listen to the wiser urging of our thinking brain - and the Holy Spirit.