Vulture Brain

Vulture Brain

I’ve got a vulture problem.

The other morning I went out on my back porch to find dozens of these scavenger birds staring right back at me. No fewer than seven had made themselves comfortable on the roof of the house, and dozens more had taken up residence in the spindly trees that make up the wooded area behind our home. Needless to say, this is a strange way to start your day.

Now, I freely admit that my knowledge of vultures is limited. I know they like dead things and … well, that’s about it. So after my recently resuscitated brain sorted through my limited archives, I asked the questions anyone would ask: Whaaaaaat is going on? Is something dead? Am I dead? Do they know something I don’t? Is this a really weird omen? Have I stumbled into a Supernatural episode where I open the show as the unfortunate victim of a grisly vulture attack that will ultimately be shown to have been the work of an obscure Nordic curse perpetrated by my neighbor in retaliation for me not trimming my bushes?

Well, none of the above. Apparently, vultures are just very social creatures that apparently like to have conferences in our neighborhood.

But there’s something unsettling about vultures. These birds that traffic in death. That subsist off another’s end. That fly circles around the weak and vulnerable, the dying and dead.

In that sense, the vultures perching on my roof are strange companions. Yet they also remind me a lot of me—waiting for death to rear its head, living off others’ misfortunes, eyes fixed downward even when I’m flying.

Those who know me best probably would not describe me as an optimist. I’m often cynical. Jaded. Snarky. Waiting for the world to prove me right in my belief that there’s more dark than light and that my efforts are destined to be overlooked and underappreciated, mere fodder for scavengers.

I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want to dwell among vultures. Yet I also kinda do. Richard Rohr makes an interesting observation about why that might be the case.

Dan O’Grady, a psychologist and Living School student, told me recently that our negative and critical thoughts are like Velcro, they stick and hold; whereas our positive and joyful thoughts are like Teflon, they slide away. We have to deliberately choose to hold onto positive thoughts so that they can “imprint.” Observing my own habits of thought and in counseling others I see this to be profoundly true. The implications are enormous for individuals and for society. Neuroscience can now demonstrate the brain indeed has a negative bias; the brain prefers to constellate around fearful, negative, or problematic situations. In fact, when a loving, positive, or unproblematic thing comes your way, you have to savor it consciously for at least fifteen seconds before it can harbor and store itself in your “implicit memory;” otherwise it doesn’t stick.

You probably need to read that paragraph again. Especially if you are in any kind of ministry work or leadership role.

Let me say it another way: if you don’t actively choose to focus on the positive, the places where God is at work, the places of blessing, you will become a vulture.

That’s what your fallen brain will make you. Someone who only sees problems because they find their identity from fixing problems. Someone who is too busy to count their blessings. Someone who sits around waiting for death and sees it in everyone and everything. That’s what vultures do.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Why do people stare at babies and sunsets? What’s happening there? Contemplation. An intentional focusing on the good, allowing that space inside your soul to open to possibility of resurrection.

After learning this, I tried an experiment with two very different groups of people: some teenagers and some, shall we say, more seasoned adults. I asked them to find a point of happiness or gratitude in their memory and go there for five minutes. Remember the smells. Who was there? What did they say? Live it again.

We naturally do this with the negative memories we have, replaying old mistakes and old hurts in vivid detail over and over and over. That’s vulture brain at work.

What happened with this experiment? In both groups, multiple people were crying by the end, which tells me a couple of things. One, grief and happiness are closer than we think. They don’t live across town from one another, but in the same neighborhood.

And two, our souls need those five minutes or they will shrivel up and die. This isn’t mere positive thinking that claims the world is your oyster, but rather a state of mind that is open to having our natural, negative, and death-dealing proclivities challenged by the presence of the goodness of God that was there, is there, and will be there in all its fullness one day.

Because this Christian thing is not for the birds, so to speak. It’s not for the vultures but for the dreamers, the hopers, and the ones who have the ability to remember the times God broke into our despair and said, “This. Look here. Really look. Remember. You’re going to need this for later. Look.”

I want to do this. I do. But I have a vulture problem. I am a vulture problem.

I suppose we have to choose what we want, not just want what we want.

Personally, I want to believe that what I do and say matters. That there is something transcendent about this life. That darkness doesn’t win. That beauty is stronger than ugliness. That Jesus is everything he says, and that God is more knowable than I think yet more mysterious than I realize.

Like a child releasing a balloon is convinced it can float to the moon, I want to stand in awe of what I have just seen.

Maybe that’s where it starts for us. Maybe a disciplined and defiant stand of contemplative gratitude for even five minutes can change things, can change me.

When it comes down to it, the real work starts in our own backyards. In the choice to savor the goodness and presence of God in our lives. After all, what better thing could we teach others—and ourselves—than that?

It Is What It Is. Maybe.

It Is What It Is. Maybe.

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