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Talking to myself: a way out of gray world inside my head


Head bent, Lucy was moving as fast as her arthritic legs would carry her. Oscar Meyer, a scruffy little dog as black as Lucy’s dyed hair, shushed along at her ankles like a mop. They were both concentrating so hard, they didn’t notice us until we were almost upon them. When Lucy looked up and saw a familiar dog walker, she grinned in relief. “He’s tryin’ to argue religion with me,” she said, gesturing toward the man back at the bus stop, “and I told him I just don’t do that.” She scurried on, eager to get even farther away, and we resumed our walk, heading straight for the bus stop.

“It says in the Bible,” he started in as soon as we reached shouting distance, “that if you’re talking to yourself, you’re talking to Satan! Did you know that?”

“Er … I’m not big on Satan,” I blurted, tugging Sophie’s lead forward. He called after us several times, and I could still hear him when I reached the corner, talking now only to himself, and presumably the devil.

I shrugged and smiled one of those urban seen-it-all smiles, gathering up the superiority I’d need to dismiss the experience. The bus-stop prophet was no doubt mentally ill, his brain short on serotonin and inclined toward sinister overinterpretations. Still, his vehemence made his words stick like double-sided tape. “What if he’s right?” I found myself thinking as I unclasped the lead and divested myself of baggies. “Have I been telling Satan about picking up the dry cleaning?”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I countered instantly. “We do this because the human brain is wired for dialogue and relationship. And because the dry cleaning’s been sitting there for two weeks. Satan’s cause is hardly advanced.”

Still, I was mindful, for the next few days, every time I talked to myself. Mainly, I realized, I was living out loud, muttering the sorts of things I’d tell other humans if I weren’t afraid of boring them. It’s the same reason we talk to our animals, or to babies who are happy just to listen to the melody. It gets lonely in that gray world inside our heads, and all the mundane bits of life seem to flow better when we pronounce our plans, vent our amusement, project our wishes into the air.

It’s about connecting to the world, not communing with fallen angels. From infancy, humans utter sounds and watch for others’ response. As children, we learn to see ourselves in silhouette, outlined by contrast with those around us. Soon everything is relational -- even rebellion -- and alienation only makes sense as an absence of connectedness.

Some of us take this relatedness into ourselves, connecting through our thoughts and prayers and mutterings, and requiring little chitchat. Sometimes the introversion goes too far. I have a friend so solitary she folds her arms tight across her chest to ward off the sign of peace. Yet even she is acutely aware of other people’s needs and responses, and deeply loyal to the few she allows into her heart.

We are all, like it or not, contingent beings, defined and anchored -- or shattered -- by each other. Psychologists have learned to heed and even measure the “limbic resonance” that starts us off in the world: the attunement with the caregiver that literally sets our bodily rhythms and wires our brains. If it’s present in abundance, it sharpens our cognition, builds trust and empathy, connects us. Doesn’t work for lizards. Stare into their eyes and the blankness will chill you. But when a mammal stares into her baby’s eyes, they find each other -- and when a human mother gazes lovingly and consistently, she can literally change her baby’s mind.

In the eyes of a child who’s been severely neglected, though, you see none of this echo, this soul-forming, reciprocal awareness. Such a child has had no chance to connect, no experience of harmony, no reason to trust another person up close. And when scientists scan the child’s brain, they’ll find neurons missing by the billion. Love develops connections within our brains; its absence leaves us solitary, unfeeling and vicious, ruled by neural impulses we cannot control.

For someone who grows up that deprived, or falls into the grip of a psychosis that zaps the old connections, it’s hard even to pray. Because every time we reach out to an invisible Creator, or to reach deep inside for a wisdom not our own, we’re drawing on precedent, on the relational, resonant way of being that human love has taught us.

If we live long enough, and experience that love fully enough, it will teach us that everything’s already connected. So when we’re talking to ourselves we’re really talking to God -- even though we wouldn’t dare to presume it, let alone bore the Creator with our dry cleaning.

If we don’t feel God inside us, if we can’t make that connection, we’re left with our own emptiness, and all we can hope to do is play the devil’s advocate.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is Jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001