The other day, two friends came to visit and we were talking about forgiveness.
One of the women was telling us about how difficult it sometimes is to let go of the disappointment we feel when someone we love makes mistakes that we think they shouldn’t. That really got me to thinking about forgiveness and how closely it is tied to my understanding of how our brains work.
This is how I see it; none of us are playing with a full deck. Most likely there are very few of us who have managed to avoid any kind of brain trauma. And brain damage is something that I know a whole lot more about than I’d like to.
When we had seen the MRI scans of Tori and Madelena in December of 2012, and saw how profoundly the disease had physically altered their brains, it was suddenly easy to understand why they had been acting so strangely and had lost motor control. The actual structure of the organ was obviously deteriorated and had suffered tremendously from the effects of MLD.
A month later, when blood tests confirmed that Ike also had the disease, he had an MRI that our neurologist, Dr. Nelson, described as being “well within the range of ‘normal’ brain damage.” As Aaron and I studied the scans, the doctor pointed out the very minor deterioration that Ike had sustained from the effects of MLD, but he also pointed out that like any other kid, Ike had the physical evidence of his leaps out of grocery carts, tumbles while playing, exposure to environmental toxins, and his fair share of childhood illness. These minor events leave their marks on the brain. Drug and alcohol use, physical abuse, and concussions would have made things worse. But these assaults on the brain happen to nearly everyone.
So what you may have suspected all along is right, that guy who was driving so poorly on the freeway most likely has suffered brain damage, as have you. Luckily the brain is very resilient and we mostly make do, but it is important to remember that our brains are not done developing until after puberty, which isn’t finished until a person's early 20s!
Factor in the raging hormones of adolescence or mental illness and the picture of our brain health gets even murkier. I’m not even going to touch the subject of how our perceptions of the world are so heavily influenced by our early experiences, by the kind of love and nurturing we receive and even the kind of food we eat. It is just so complicated to imagine how we are all just subject to so many attacks on not just the physical health of our brain, but on our emotions as well.
The ways that we see the world, the knee-jerk reactions we have, and the choices we make are usually rooted in past experiences. Aaron and I had very different experiences losing Tori, as it was my first time with this kind of trauma, and his younger sister died when he was just 8.
An article in the National Geographic that I read years ago was deeply comforting, and confirmed what I had been suspecting — teenagers are basically brain damaged.
The symptoms of brain damage are hard to tease out from normal adolescent behavior. Just when a parent is so proud of how their bright and beautiful child is developing nearly exponentially, the child starts making poor decisions, acting irritable, having a difficult time communicating with and understanding others, lacks proper attention skills and has trouble with their location in the space-time continuum. So it is hard to discern when actual brain damage is the culprit, and when the teen is just being a teen.
When Tori and Madelena’s brains were being attacked by MLD, we didn’t know, of course, and we were frustrated with their choices and lack of motor control. Other parents that we’ve talked to whose children suffered from brain cancer or MLD have the same regrets. But now I know. I’m on the other side and I can see so clearly that we have all taken hits to our mental processing. No one is unscathed. Which has helped me understand that we all do stupid things and make bad choices. Because our brains have been under assault since we were born, and in many cases, even before that! (Did you take all of your prenatal vitamins?)
This has helped me understand that we all must constantly forgive each other, because like I said before, we’re not playing with a full deck. We are making mistakes all ... the ... time.
I know I certainly want to be pardoned when I do something stupid. I want that mercy, and the beauty about mercy and forgiveness is that you’ve got to give it to get it. So yes, I still get frustrated when I see bad decisions in the works, either my own or someone else’s but I see that it is a fundamental part of being human. No one escapes from it, no one learns without it, and to try to hold anyone, even yourself, to a standard that doesn’t allow for poor mental processing is a recipe for misery.
On Thursday, Madelena had her yearly MRI to measure the effects of MLD on her brain. I’m intensely curious to see the results, of course, but the degree of damage is almost immaterial. We have already accepted that she has sustained some serious brain damage, but she is surviving and thriving. She is happy and she is getting stronger every month.
We have made many adjustments to her life and more importantly, to our expectations, and that has allowed us to be happy with where she is. And it makes it easy to understand and excuse the effects of her disease, because we know the symptoms for what they are, and realize that there, but for the grace of God, go I.