I was reading a book on Christian spirituality last night before bed when I realized that I was understanding very little of it. I got the general principles, I suppose, but much of what the author was writing was too abstract, and I found myself just reading along, understanding all the words, all the sentences, but not really getting anything out of the reading. I hadn’t read much by this author before, so I blamed it on his writing style.
Then I picked up another book on my nightstand, this one on Buddhist spirituality by a neuropsychologist who writes about brain structure and function, how they are involved in happiness and suffering and their relationship to Buddhist practice. I was fine (even found it very interesting) as long as he was writing concrete descriptions of the brain: its gross anatomy; the 100 billion neurons, each with 5000 connections to other neurons; the relationship between the structure and function of the brain to our suffering or happiness; and so on. I understood these concrete details, but, as soon the chapter veered into the abstractions behind them all, I recognized again that I was getting nothing out of the reading.
It wasn’t that these books were too complex for me to understand. The concrete details of the neurology, for instance, were just as sophisticated and complex as the abstractions of the spirituality (if not more so). But the neurology was tangible and material; the spirituality intangible and conceptual. It was the abstractions behind the Buddhist practice (and Christian spirituality) that got me.
I’m very familiar with both Christian and Buddhist spirituality and have enjoyed such books before with no trouble understanding the concepts. Something in my brain has changed. This change is not just about the impairment of memory, at least not directly. This is about the impairment of comprehension.
Another example of my impairment showed itself on Sunday. In our small faith community, as I’ve mentioned before, we serve each other communion. We line up in one of four separate queues, and each of us receives the bread and the juice from the person in front of us. After each one finishes, he turns and serves the person behind him. This past Sunday I received communion from Wendy in front of me but then walked directly back to my seat without serving my wife Marja who was behind me. I’ve certainly never done that before! Marja told me later that Wendy and she just looked at one another, tacitly acknowledging that each understood the source of my confusion.
A few minutes after I’d returned from the line and sat down, I realized what I’d done. I noticed that I didn’t feel embarrassed by what would have otherwise been very embarrassing for me. I knew that Wendy already knew what was behind my forgetting. She didn’t have to wonder what was going on, to check in with other people to see if they had noticed anything, to be a little embarrassed the next time our eyes met. Both she and Marja understood; they could shrug and move on. I could shrug and move on. I was once more grateful that I’d shared my diagnosis with the community before things like this started to happen.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m just imagining or at least exaggerating this cognitive impairment. Sometimes it’s obvious I’m not.
Either way, a friend has reminded me, I will not find equanimity in getting caught up in the debate.