On the front porch with coffee this morning, a cloud of birds flying through my mind. The life and death of Robin Williams occupies my thoughts. Inchoate, without sequence or arrangement, reflections – true reflections, wisps in the mirror of my own experience – tumble around in the dark vault:
…The human brain, the machine of God; the ancient limbic core, the vault of the amygdala, the hippocampus messenger, the sapient and sentient cerebral cortex. The limbic fires which smolder like banked coals in memory, ever-constant in their resurrection when, unbidden by the higher cortex, they flare into consuming flames in the goading moment and we hear the limbic scream…
A quote from William Gibson:
“What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda.”
…The “divine madness” of artistic genius. The manic, inspired, sensitive, ruthlessly responsive genius of Robin Williams, the laughing clown with sad eyes, the kind person…
–There are only two types of humor, the kind that is mean and the kind that is wise. The mean kind causes separation, supports specialness, is anger for the self directed outward toward others. The wise kind brings us together, tells us it’s this way for all of us, confusing, baffling, absurd at times and ludicrous at others, but we’re all in it together and sometimes all we can do is laugh, soothe it with endorphins, let it be what it is and take our remedy as we can.
Limbic messages to the cortical complex are clear: Danger. Do something about it. Explore until you find the solution. Those red-hot priority messages will not moderate, the dopamine will not subside until the prefrontal cortex discovers a place, condition, behavior, awareness, etc. which provides a solution to the signal pain.
The prefrontal cortex, doing what it does, seeks solutions that moderate the screaming limbic brain. It may learn new modes of perception and rearrange its own definitions of pain. It may shut down its own system, become catatonic, cut off the flow of input to the core brain. Isolation, reduction of input, can become the drug of choice. It might learn that dopamine blockers – alcohol, nicotine, certain drugs – work well and serve to lessen the limbic scream. Or the production of endorphins can become a drug of choice. It might learn the calming response in prayer, the peace of the meditative center, the conditioned response to assert that beyond the level of cognitive perception all is well and good and pains are just part of the whole thing, no need to get upset. It all seems a less than complete explanation. It serves to tie together observations of the process limited to the science of brain chemistry, yet I question an explanation that includes only a sum of parts, because there is the thing always present which is greater than that sum, more than a mere aggregate of local fragments.
There is still the unknowable mystery, unexplained, the connection of all, each to each, in creation itself. Jesus connected spiritually, or at least represented the connection in terms of spirituality. Vitruvius and later Leonardo da Vinci found it in the golden ratios; mathematicians see it in nature in the recurrence of specific bases such as the Fibonacci series. Harmony, connectedness – suffusing all of creation and traced again and again in religion and the arts down through human history.
This life holds, inextricably intertwined, the bitter and the sweet. There is a fire in us which both consumes and creates; in the middle of the consuming limbic fire the light of humanity shines out in the glory of its own genius, forged in that fire. Our lives are not about the moment when the fire, flaring out, overcomes us. It is about the moments when we overcome it, and move on, seeking and embracing that unknowable mystery, unexplained, and the connection of all, each to each, in creation itself.
It is what Is. Let it Be.
RIP, Robin Williams. You are my brother. It’s not about how you died, or why. It’s about how you lived. In the middle of the flames, your light shined out to us all. Nanu Nanu, Mork. You lived it.