Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"My Name is Earl, and I Need a Hug!"

I have always believed it is true that people do not care what you know, until they know you care. I love this story below, taken from the introduction of This is Your Brain on Joy by Dr. Earl Henslin because it reveals so much about his compassionate and curious nature. Enjoy this little "snippet" from chapter one. Meet Dr. Henslin, or as most people (even his clients) come to call him, Earl.


My First Hug and Other Joyful Brain Matters

Thank you, God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough. Garrison Keillor


I come from a family of Minnesota dairy farmers, the population that served as fodder for Garrison Keillor’s hilariously stoic Lutheran characters in the famed Prairie Home Companion skits. Just in case you originate from another, more animated part of the country and wonder if such stiff-upper-lipped (albeit, well-meaning) people actually exist in real life, let me assure you, they do. Though at midlife I embrace the basic tenants of my childhood faith, I have to say—with great relief, some good therapy, and the discovery that God is all for being happy—I’ve gladly dropped the stone-faced expressions that accompanied my religious experience. But my upbringing was straight out of a Lake Wobegon novel, where the citizens feel a sense of unease at potentially emotional moments. Keillor could have been describing my own understated kin when he wrote,”Left to our own devices we Wobegonians go straight for the small potatoes. Majestic doesn’t appeal to us; we like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling..”

In my family, unbridled feelings of joy and open emotion were momentous events: full of danger and potential for sin, and to be avoided at all costs. That’s why I’ll never forget the moment I received my first open-armed, enthusiastic hug.
I was in my early teens, standing in the front yard with my grandfather, grandmother, mom, and dad. About thirty yards from our white clapboard two-story home stood a picturesque red barn on a field of green. We were all gathered together (except for my three younger siblings, whose whereabouts I’ve forgotten) under shade of a beautiful maple tree with a trunk about the size of a loveseat, its giant umbrella-like branches providing shade on that hot, humid Minnesota day. The whole scene looked like a Norman Rockwell still life. We were lined up in anticipation of meeting my uncle’s fianc√©. My uncle came driving into the yard in a light blue Thunderbird, and as the dust settled he jumped out and did something I’d never seen before. Truly, it was like watching some bizarre tribal custom play out before our widening eyes. He walked around to his betrothed’s side of the car . . . and opened the door. She stepped out, and the world as I knew it was suspended in time.
She was beautiful—a vision of loveliness with brunette hair, sparkling eyes, and something I’d not seen often in my family or church: she was smiling! She strode forward with confidence, introduced herself to my grandfather, and did something absolutely unheard of except on Father Knows Best or Leave It to Beaver.
She hugged my grandfather.
My grandfather, who I felt sure had been born with a King James Bible embedded in his side, had quite the impressive Christian pedigree: Sunday School superintendent, Sunday School teacher, and rich bass voice for hymn singing. None of his religious training, however, prepared him for this unbidden display of affection, and his whole body went rigid—with shock, I assume. This newcomer had no idea how many centuries-old family rules she had just violated. Topping the list was the blatant sin of a beautiful young woman embracing a man to whom she was not married. Though I know it sounds odd now, I do not recall ever seeing any couples around me hug in public, and hardly ever in private.
Undaunted, this vision of loveliness moved ahead to my grandmother, another hard-working, devout, dependable pillar of the faith. My grandmother suffered from severe asthma and emphysema, and in the horror of being hugged, not only went stiff from head to toe, but also began to wheeze and cough. She frantically searched in her purse, brought out her inhaler, and began drawing breaths from it in an effort to recover her dignity.
Next up, my mother, who is the product of these two. Same song, third verse—only as I watched her brow wrinkle in physical pain as a result of the unprovoked hug, I knew she was getting a migraine that would probably put her out of commission for the next day or two. Bless her heart, the persistent fianc√© walked over to embrace my dad next. I had seen my dad try to hug my mom, but she always moved quickly away, dismissing him with, “Oh, Richard!” His knees stiff from years of milking cows, he rarely, if ever, caught her. (Though by the sheer existence of me and my three siblings, there’s proof he must have caught her at least four times.)
The young woman hugged my father, and I was expecting the same wooden reaction from him, but to my surprise, he did not let go! In fact, he wrapped his arms around her and held on as if for his life, like a camel that had just walked 2,000 miles across the desert, found an oasis, and was determined to quench his thirst until the well ran dry!
Next, the still-smiling lady hugged me. I was, at this point, in the heat of puberty. I had seen girls like her only in my dreams, and now felt as though I’d just been transported to heaven on the wings of her soft embrace. After she and my uncle wed, I always looked forward to my aunt’s arrival, knowing I would get a warm, tender hug. She did not know or ask about any of my faults, no prodding into sins of omission or commission of which I may have been guilty. She just hugged me.
It was for me, my first real taste of God’s unconditional love on earth in human form.
Over the years she’d encourage me to reach out to my warm-on-the-inside, fully concealed-from-the-outside family. “Earl, hug your family, even if they act awkward or withdrawn. You can’t hug them when they’re dead.” It took almost a decade of one-sided hugging, but, believe it or not, eventually the folks caught on, and hugs are now a routine part of our family’s life.
This is not meant to be a negative comment on my family. They’re the salt of the earth—good folks with generous hearts. But they struggled so with verbalizing affection, demonstrating physical love, and showing open-faced, smiling joy!

So, you may be asking, what’s a guy from a long line of stoics doing writing a book on happiness? Perhaps it’s because of my background of sensory deprivation (at least in terms of hugs and smiles); where my family looked upon deeply happy people with a good measure of suspicion, I developed an almost insatiable curiosity, even fascination, with the subject of joy.
On the one hand, there is the researcher-therapist in me who loves discovering what makes people tick, and tick with a good measure of glee. Deeply joyful people are not terribly commonplace, particularly in my profession where folks usually knock on my door as a last resort for their depressions, obsessions, and traumas. Therefore, when I happen upon a person who radiates happiness from the core of their being, it is almost like observing aborigines, a foreign tribe from an altogether other culture. What if I could bottle whatever it is that they have, and share it with the world? It would be perhaps the most meaningful contribution I could make in my earthly existence as a mental health professional and a researcher involved with all things neurological, psychological, and spiritual.
On the other hand, my reasons for writing this book could be, I’ll admit it, a bit selfish. For it is said that if we really want something, we should teach or write about it. Embarking on the serious subject of happiness and all its applications and implications has already given me some wonderful personal payoffs. It is impossible to apply your mind to the study of joy without experiencing some surges of insight and all the positive feelings that go along with it. So there, I’ve said it. Writing this book is just plain fun.
What I’ve discovered in my research, through reading the latest scientific breakthroughs, in my experiences with clients in search of happiness, and specifically in studying the brain through SPECT images (more on that later), has been both personally and professionally life-altering. I cannot keep to myself what I’ve learned about joy: what it is, what it is composed of, how to find, measure, and keep it. When a man finds a fountain of living water, he doesn’t horde it; he shouts about it, shares it.
Jesus spoke of a joy that no man could take away. And it is that joy, that depth of happiness, that we’ll be uncovering in the coming pages. What is especially sad to me is how many Christians believe that their lack of joy is due to some spiritual or personal failing or character flaw. “God made some people happy, and some people Eeyores.” “There are glass half-full folks, and glass half-empty folks.”
Is that true? If so, even partially so, how much of our natural disposition determines our potential to approach life from the best possible angle? How much can be changed by our thoughts? By spiritual intervention? By medication, foods, supplements, or exercise?
Are you reaching, on a daily basis, your absolute highest potential for happiness? Are you bringing your best, most joyful self to the table of your relationships?
And while we’re asking questions, by the way, what IS happiness or joy? (And is there a difference between the two words?) Is a joyful outlook sustainable during crisis or grief? Do we get it from nature or nurture or supernatural intervention?
Wonderful questions. Questions of the ages posed by centuries of sages. And in time, I’ll do my best—by the end of this book—to give you some thoughtful answers gleaned from my study of the scriptures, of living life, being a listening ear to friends, and a professional therapist to clients. And perhaps, most uniquely of all, what I’ve learned from my study of and experience with brain science.

[BFJ1]Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor, 1990, Penguin, New York. Page 7

[K2](Healing the Hardware of the Soul, page 16)

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