Grey Matters

A twenty-minute embrace. That’s what is on my mind this morning. Not too terribly long ago, I read something that suggested complete strangers who embrace one another for as little as twenty minutes can fall in love with one another. Actually, it was not just an embrace. It was a long embrace, followed by conversation. During the conversation, each of the strangers were required to look into the other stranger’s eyes. By the end of twenty minutes, the strangers had become completely enamored with their partners in the study. Whether this is a real memory or is just a fantasy I have concocted to justify my thinking, I do not know. But I am certain the outcome of spending twenty minutes looking into the eyes of a stranger was the topic of a psychological study I read when I was in college. I think. Could it be that “not too terribly long ago” was actually almost fifty years ago?

The idea that looking into a person’s eyes and embracing the person for an extended period could lead to falling in love is intriguing. In an authoritarian society, I can imagine the use of forced intimacy through physical embracing and visual engagement; people could be paired in service to the State. A psychological study of this type probably would be judged unethical. One does not manipulate a subject’s emotions in a way that could be permanent; it is just wrong. And the ethics of such an endeavor would grow even murkier and more sinister if the subjects in the study were in committed relationships to other people. But how can we learn about ourselves as humans without putting ourselves into such circumstances?  It’s a dilemma.


If I knew how many times in a day my friends and family think about me, I think I would be either deeply flattered or deeply depressed. As I consider this matter, I realize that I think about many people during the course of a day; sometimes, I think about specific people dozens of times in that timeframe. Many times, in fact. If I close my eyes, I realize that I see those people not dozens of times, but hundreds. Thoughts of a given person, thoughts that seem to last minutes, might last only a fraction of a second, but the recollections and new experiences that race through my brain during that instant may involve months or years.


Listening to Professor Pragya Agarwal’s video presentation, in which she discussed the topic of How Women are Penalised for their Emotions, prompted me to consider that most people in our culture identify emotions as either masculine or feminine. We judge people when we witness them expressing emotions outside what we consider the correct sphere. Whether our tendency to equate emotions with either masculinity or femininity is trained into us or is hard-wired in our DNA is not absolutely clear. Regardless of its genesis, we can “train” that bias out of us, individually. Yet most people tend to maintain their natural bigotry, making judgments even in the full knowledge that judgments are based on illegitimate stereotypes. We can try to be non-judgmental; but those attempts often fail.

The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.

~ Carl Sagan ~

Looking inward, we realize how nearly-impossible it is to re-wire our psyches. Despite the fact that I know men are expected to temper their emotions—and to avoid certain feminine emotions altogether, I cannot seem to adhere to the rules. I rarely am successful in either tempering or avoiding entirely the expression of gender-inappropriate emotions. And that inability to suppress or hide those emotions creates anxiety. In spite of the fact that I receive comforting reassurances that the display of certain emotions in men is perfectly natural, I try to curb them. I agree that stoicism is a recipe for mental trouble. I agree that it is perfectly normal for men to express feminine emotions. But, apparently, I do not possess sufficient self-confidence to do so openly. I talk a good game. But when it comes to defending the legitimacy of expressing the full range of emotions, I inch away from the front lines. I backtrack a few steps at a time and then sprint away in search of a protective cave where I can conceal myself from prying eyes and ears. On one hand, I want to be able to express emotions without worrying that I will be judged for doing so. On the other, I want to have the discipline and masculine wherewithal to conceal those emotions completely. Competing ideas and thoughts. Hypocrisy. Fear. It’s not enough to wrestle with concealing emotions; I seem to want to conceal and express them at the same time. The grey matter in my skull is uncomfortable; it wants to shift to a more pleasant experience.


The vocal owls remain. We heard again them last night and I heard the sound again this morning. The sound is loud, but it seems distant. At the same time, though, I have the idea that the bird is perched in a tree very near to me; my sense that it is distant may be the result of the sound echoing off the forest of trees.

Listening to the owls and all the other creatures in the forest makes me think: how can I be satisfied to know only the sound? How can I go about my day-to-day life without dedicating myself to getting closer to the sounds? Closer to the creatures that make them? Knowing all about their lives and how they go about living  them? How can I become more knowledgeable about the critters and their sounds?

Those questions arise in virtually every other aspect of my life. The fact that I harbor so many questions—each of which hides ten thousand more—suggests that my knowledge of the world around me is deeply superficial. I know so very little about so very much. That phrase describes my assessment of myself. I skim knowledge, barely breaking the surface so I can get a glimpse of all I do not know. We acknowledge the vastness of our ignorance of life beneath the sea, but we overlook the fact that we are equally ignorant of what goes on outside the periphery of our lives.

I know virtually nothing about the structure and functions of grain elevators. The knowledge required to plant and harvest hundreds of acres of corn or cotton or wheat is outside my realm of experience. My ignorance about wastewater management, brain surgery, modern internal combustion engines, and millions of other aspects of life on earth offers anecdotal evidence that I have been shielded, for my entire life, from knowing more. I have never understood the delivery of electricity to our homes; I consider it proof that magic takes place under our noses. My knowledge of what is involved in launching satellites into orbit. And my understanding of the process of extracting petroleum from the earth and refining it into products that have become vital to our daily lives and, indeed, our survival. I wonder, is it possible to flood our brains with knowledge in a way that will enable us to retrieve that knowledge instantaneously? I’ve been told, in years past, that we use only a fraction of our brains. But more recently, that assertion of fact has been challenged as myth. Researchers have reported that MRI imaging shows that there is no dormant part of the brain. The brain makes up only 3-5% of the body’s weight, but it uses up roughly 20% of the body’s resources, in terms of oxygen and glucose. If only I knew more. If only my knowledge were deeper than wide. Understanding requires depth; breadth  equates only to exposure, not to insight.


The day is speeding by already. I will attempt to capture it and slow it down. Time is racing by of late, a signal that insists I pay attention to mortality. And so I shall.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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