Thursday, November 09, 2006


It's an odd thing to try to describe a phenomenon that happens to many people at once, practically simultaneously. In disease, you have epidemiologists who work to trace outbreaks of illness in order to quell their spread and perhaps predict their occurrence. In politics, you have the ubiquitous pollsters. Then there are the social scientists that try to explain things like how we associate in groups or act as individuals within groups.

Somehow I have a great fascination with how we swim in and out of associative groups without ever knowing we were in them, and at the same time feel great skepticism as to the reach of our scientific understandings about how such things take place.

I think it's because there's some elemental emotional or spiritual element to what impels people to think, speak and act that is not accounted for, perhaps by definition cannot or should not be accounted for.

Take for instance the recent midterm election. No matter how much the media was abuzz before the election about how we said we were going to vote, I had to ignore it. I can too easily be swept into a rapture thinking that the world will be righted, that it is just around the corner. And yet, something did resonate in many individuals at once. (Hallelujah!) At the same time I celebrate this, I must steel myself against thinking that in two years we will do the same. There is something about particular moments in time that synchronize us in thought and feeling with most if not many. Who knows the whims that will grip us then? Why count on that?


On a related note, there was an article in, where else, the NYT the other day about speaking in tongues. Neuroscientists have imaged the brains of people in both devotional activities and then in those trance-like states where they are said to "speak in tongues". The results? It seems that there is a loosening and a deactivation of many different parts of the brain which seem to suggest they are indeed giving themselves up to something. Is it perhaps a learnable sort of neural programming, the way that meditation is?

It makes me also think about the mystical nature of language-- especially foreign language-- and its place in worship. There are many Catholics that rue the disappearance of Latin from the mass. I find myself, despite my liberal leanings, yearning for more and more Hebrew in my religious practice. What is it about another language that opens us up to the devine? Or is it that it activates a different "I", a different speaker, a different self?

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