How to navigate the turbulent seas of uncertainty and not sink.
A definition of love could be the belief that without your loved one, the world is unimaginable. The death of a loved person is utterly devastating. But from the vantage point of the brain, a death is simply a sudden and inexplicable absence — the total erasure of the person from the mental model of the living world. In fMRI studies, the same brain circuitry lights up whenever we experience prolonged absence, even if it is not permanent — the magnitude may be different, but the neurophysiology of the heartache is the same. Each perceived abandonment can be described as a model for grief.
To keep these temporary absences from destroying our inner world, we need mental gymnastics that transcend the physical evidence. Mental reminders remind us that loss isn’t permanent. Another word for this is faith — the brain’s built in airbag against heartbreak.
In navigating this universally trying human experience of weathering the miniature griefs of abandonment, we find an improbable teacher in penguins — a species that also forms monogamous pair-bonds, which can last a mating season or a lifetime.
In a lovely aside in her altogether fascinating exploration of the science of grief and healing, neuroscientist and fMRI pioneer Mary-Frances O’Connor details the astonishing feats of faith that penguins perform when one parent ventures far out into the inhospitable Antarctic ocean on a four-month hunt for food while the other remains in the nest to incubate the egg, fasting the entire time, with no guarantee of his partner’s return.
With an eye to the sweet true story of Tango — the baby penguin hatched from an abandoned egg and raised by a same-sex penguin couple at the Central Park Zoo in the 1990s: a different act of survivalist faith against all odds — O’Connor writes:
It doesn’t matter what the parents are like, but the important thing is one must believe that, after an extended absence from Antarctica, their partner will be back with food. One parent who decides their partner is not coming back will go to sea fishing, which can cause the eggs to fail to hatch or even kill the chicks. Penguins that persist in their belief of their partner’s return and are willing to wait for them will be far more successful. The In [The March of the Penguins]It is evident that, among the thousands of penguins in the world, the return mother locates her child by hearing his specific call. This is an amazing feat, as these animals overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
This remarkable phenomenon holds another mirror that is a reflection of our egocentricity. Even though the Cartesian belief that animals are only automata meant we can feel, was discarded, the fact remains that our species still has the capacity to plan the future and remember the past. The penguins are a reminder that we’re not the only ones in this. Each time we have thought ourselves superior and singular along some axis of ability, the rest of nature and those willing to notice it — also called scientists — have humbled us into reality: We thought ourselves the only animals to use tools, until Jane Goodall toppled epochs of dogma with her revolutionary work with the chimpanzees at Gombe; we thought ourselves this planet’s most complex consciousness, but along came the octopus. At every turn comes surging more evidence that, in Sy Montgomery’s poetic words, “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom… far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”
Complement the penguins’ singular triumph of faith with a human counterpart in Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, then revisit O’Connor’s fascinating work on the neuropsychology of love, loss, and resilience.
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