Recently, as a client left my office after a session she said, “I feel like I left a whole bunch of baggage, but they’re nice baggage, Samsonite baggage.”
It was a striking image for me. Most of us don’t like our personal or emotional baggage—our painful memories of the past, our history of relationships gone wrong, or experiences of bullying or abuse. The very term “baggage” in this context implies that it is nasty stuff that we’d rather pack away, and we’re working hard to keep it relegated to the past and out of our present or future.
We often see counselling as a place to work through some of our baggage, preferring to unload it and leave it behind us. But I’ve never thought of the possibility that such baggage could be described as “nice” or have value like the top quality Samsonite kind.
But the more I think of it, the more this makes sense. Much of the time, our past experiences—even the painful ones—do have value to us. Rarely is life 100% bad—usually there are some precious and tender memories mixed in with the painful or distressing ones.
Out of negative experiences we sometimes receive gifts of resilience and strength that we might not have otherwise developed.
And even the most painful, negative experiences have value, even if only in showing us what we can survive.
Baby Brains, Relationships and Faith
At Shalem we talk a lot about brains. We are especially intrigued by the “neuroplasticity” of brains—that is, the ability of our brains to change, develop and grow, from cradle to grave. There have been enormous advances in brain science over the past 15 years that demonstrate how crucial relationships are in the sculpting of our brains.
When we are in relationship together, we are firing the neurons in each other’s brains, moulding each other’s lives literally at a biological level. Child psychiatrist Dr. Jean Clinton, a friend of Shalem’s, has said, “relationship is the nutrition of the brain.” Relationships are God’s gift for healing and health.
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with a distinguished neonatologist and clinical neuroscientist, Dr. Karen Pape. She is a leading figure in the pediatric world in advocating the notion that baby’s brains, when damaged due to a birth injury, for example, can and do heal—contrary to much of the current medical wisdom.
From her clinical practice, she is convinced that the neuroplasticity of infant brains supports healing and recovery in areas of the brain where damage has occurred—much like the recovery that often happens with people who have experienced strokes. I highly recommend the work of this extraordinary practitioner; a good place to start is her TED Talk, entitled “Baby Brains DO Recover, But Habit Hides It.”
At Shalem, our interest is not just in the connection between relationships and mental health. We are especially interested in the intersection between relationships (and their effect on neuroplasticity), mental health and faith. In our conversation, Dr. Pape referenced credible scientific research studies that indicate the healing power of prayer.