Today I realized my brain has changed. Something moved it, I felt this evening to be precise, I realized that peril has forever changed how I see my children.
That the outside world in the days of our plague is no longer the same is established news. Our world might never be the same. We have suddenly come to learn we are ultimately small and vulnerable, that we are the children of this delicate earth. Alas, humanity has once again underestimated the power of nature, the vulnerability of man.
I had underestimated the impact of vulnerability on my internal state.
That in the face of peril perception evolves, sometimes unexpectedly, has been studied extensively. The images that leap into the passenger’s head who hears the captain reporting the loss of an engine from the cockpit, announcing an impending emergency landing; the reminiscences that burst into the consciousness of a first-time skydiver, moments before the parachute opens; these are images that surge into one’s brain unexpectedly resulting from experiences wholly unnatural to ordinary living. One might suddenly recall long-forgotten childhood events when confronted with danger. The face of one’s mother might appear suddenly with calming realism; voices from the past might erupt loudly, evoking words one has long forgotten; phrases of foreign languages one has not used for decades might suddenly thrust themselves into the mind’s ear. In fact, some see God in moments of danger. Unforeseen, our brain functions differently when confronted with peril. Images of one’s childhood seem to emerge from utter oblivion in the moment one faces angst, or worse, one’s end. Such are the workings of the human brain.
Fear has certainly been one of the fuels of our evolutionary path through the millenia. It has shaped cultures and civilizations. Experiences foreign to our typical day forge our brain and its connections, to be sure. Peril is the fuel of evolution. Sudden realization of danger is the stuff of change, the reason for evolutionary diversity. In fact, response to fear might, over millions of years, have accounted for creativity, invention and certainly survival. It surely has contributed to brain structure and added to the phenomenon of extreme cortical complexity.
But back to what I experienced. This evening I had my children over at home, close to me. For the first time, however, probably since their birth, I did not hug my children tight or kiss them tenderly, as I always do: we did not touch. Fear of contagion had descended upon us.
And then suddenly, I felt it. I felt the change. What I experienced in me was fundamental and sudden. I felt as if a volcano of new emotions and perceptions had explosively awakened in me. I saw these children, whose genetic makeup I am partially responsible for. I saw them in front of me, larger than life, handsome, healthy, radiant and smiling, carefree, and I began to notice details I had not taken notice of before. It felt as if the moment had provided me with a filter; everything vibrated. One might think I had consumed a hallucinogenic, but I hadn’t. The colors of their skin flickered in the evening light. Upon the peril of the moment, the new consciousness of threat, of a viral malady, I felt as if that new perception had sculpted a new brain between my shoulders and sprinkled new senses upon it.
My senses awakened from the long slumber of routine, undisturbed, jejune life, and began to extract details of my children’s faces and bodies I had not grasped before.
A small braid of hair waving lazily on my daughter’s face took the form of a lullaby. Her contagious belly laughter seemed to evolve into a sort of Schubert lieder. Her smooth skin lept toward me radiating joy and its shining olive tone brought me to the shores of Corsica. Her happy eyelids adorned with long lashes, the shape of her face, all of it, her little earlobes moved with joy.
My son’s towering height impressed me, as though giving the brood an odd feeling of gratifying safety. He seemed more handsome and gentle than ever as he crossed the threshold into the foyer. His fresh smell touched me like a breeze in the spring. The little hairs on his ear twinkled omnipresent against the afternoon sun. I looked at him moving, slowly and gently, as his image, suspended in time, left a lingering glare in my eyes. He seemed to be speaking in a slow and gentle cadence. I could see his words undulating gleefully about.
My youngest son’s voice, I also noticed, different than last week’s – deeper – was robust and sonorous. Suddenly it dawned on me he is no longer a child, but is transitioning into adulthood. His maturity struck me, causing a twinge of pain in my throat as past images of him as a child sprung before my eyes at vertiginous speed. Images of my little boy, healthy and lively, flew by, like a multicolored movie, transitioning fast before my eyes, juxtaposing his infant days with his current desire to extend his wings, contrasting his sweet infancy against his grown body.
And then, my oldest son, who is generous, who volunteers sweet soothing words, and who understands the danger of the day as an adult would. He writes sweet words to me nearly daily, words of love he repeats without hesitation, words whose meaning resonates, pulsating before my eyes again and again, causing a deep emotion, evoking electrifying tenderness and jubilation.
Lucky me to receive the gift of transformation, lucky me to live through this peril.
As we enter into the season of Passover and we remind ourselves of the many times we have been enslaved, physically and psychologically, we take a moment to reflect on the fact that our lives before COVID-19 might also have been a form of relative enslavement. We remind ourselves of our negative routines, of our bad habits, our greed, our love of diplomas and money. These are forms of psychological enslavement. These habits make us less spiritual and prod us to forget the meaning of life, the tiny moment we inhabit this beautiful earth. Paradoxically it might be the danger of extinction that will once again power our imagination and stimulate our new zest for life.
The optimist would say that those who survive the plague will be all the better for it. The realization of love and family will supercede the need for titles and money. Love and care of one’s children will triumph over greed and aggression. The need for “me first” or “me only” will be trumped by “we together.” So will it, we hope. Perhaps peril will help in shaping that new reality. It certainly has shaped the way I see my children. Peril has changed my brain forever.
Dr. Misha Pless, formerly of Marblehead, is professor and director of the Multiple Sclerosis Division at the Hospital of the Canton of Lucerne in Lucerne, Switzerland.