Two hours after an intense brain surgery during which doctors drilled holes in a ventricle, my sister sat in a chair and focused on the important annual task of choosing basketball teams for her March Madness bracket.
Such is the remarkable resilience of the human brain.
Except, sometimes it isn’t.
A slight alteration of brain chemistry, a clunk on the head, a hormonal surge occurs innocuously in one person, but causes devastating, even fatal repercussions in another.
We really don’t know yet. Causes of mental illness still confound us, making cures consistently complicated. I have seen dear friends struggle mightily with anxiety and depression and emerge whole, having discovered the exact mixture of medication, therapy and lifestyle changes right for them.
I have seen others destroyed by mental illness, a once promising athlete rendered nearly catatonic, a bright young man institutionalized, a beautiful young girl deceased.
A thorough understanding of the human brain eludes us, though we’re making strides every day. Other than an annual donation to support research, I’m not offering any answers here. Those could never come from me. I have to Google ventricle every time I try to spell it.
But recent events have me thinking about the amazing capacity and terrifying fragility of the human brain. I wonder if, as we witness the struggles and applaud the recoveries, we might, as a human race, focus on the things we do understand and the aspects we can control.
Deep in our lower frontal lobe lies the source of our emotional senses — our sense of humor, kindness, compassion, empathy and joy.
We may not find any cures there, but we will find tools to aid the struggle. A kind word, a suspension of judgment, a coaxed chuckle, a sincere compliment might be just the thing someone needs to get through a difficult moment, then hour, then day.
I stood in awe of the human brain several years ago as my sister sat, sutured and clamped, and thoughtfully filled out her brackets. But I know less about how it actually works than I know about what it takes for a college basketball team to make it to the Final Four.
What I do know is that laughter feels good, strength matters, kindness helps and hope counts.
May is Mental Illness Awareness Month.
Let’s honor it by celebrating the human capacity to love.