Updated: Sep 19, 2022
This is the 3rd post in a series about why we have to pay attention to our bodies in order to make any significant or lasting change.
We've already unpacked the way our autonomic nervous system is always collecting data and responding and how our early years shape the way our autonomic nervous system develops in such a way that we take on patterns and strategies that are less than God's good design for his people.
But What Does This Have to Do With Change?
Have you ever tried to change a habit or a reaction, only to discover that you keep defaulting into the pattern you're trying to move away from? This is because the messages you learned in your early years - regarding safety, belonging, and significance - are stored in your body in all of your neural pathways. And these pathways allow our past to invade our present. It feels like there's always this shadow from our past that follows us everywhere.
Two Types of Memory
If I asked you to tell me what you did yesterday, that would be an example of explicit memory. You might tell me a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
But you have another way of remembering: implicit memory. This is memory that you're not consciously aware of. It’s generally stored as emotional information, without a coherent storyline. And it comes forward as emotion when your body notices anything that reminds it of a previous experience.
This is super helpful when you greet a friend and you automatically hug, smile. You don’t need to go through all your memories of your friend to remind yourself if this person is safe. Your body carries implicit memories of good experiences with this friend and so when you see him, you’re automatically glad.
It’s not so helpful when you see a friend’s cat and your body goes into full threat mode because you got scratched by a cat when you were one and you don’t even remember it.
Our Implicit Memory Tells Us About Safety and Danger
Our early experiences - cumulatively - shape and form us - literally. Through implicit memory, they become embedded in our physical bodies through the shaping of our nervous systems. Our early years teach us what is safe and what is a threat. And often, we end up with skewed versions of safety and danger.
This is the brokenness of the world - the effects of sin - taking up residence in our bodies - in ways that we are not even consciously aware of. This is how we become conformed to the patterns of this world.
Often, this leaves us completely mystified
Why do I always lose my temper in these kinds of situations?
Why does this person make me so nervous?
Why am I unable to bring myself to do this thing?
And even more than mystified, it can make us feel ashamed.
I swore I would never do that again. How could I be so stupid?
I’ve tried everything. What is wrong with me?
If I was really following Jesus, I wouldn’t react like this.
Often, when we are frustrated by our reactions, it’s because something about the person or the place is probably triggering an implicit memory and suddenly, your body is working hard to protect you from a perceived danger of some kind.
You're Not the Only One to Experience This!
This is what Paul is highlighting in Romans 7:19-24 when he says:
"For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
You're Not to Blame
It's not your fault that you implicit memory carries what it carries. You hold implicit memory in your neural pathway and you didn't store all this stuff on purpose. However, now that you know, you ARE responsible for what you do with this understanding.
Even though Paul speaks of a "law" at work in his body, he's not just speaking of the implicit memory that is stored there. He also means the choice to keep practicing the strategies that don't line up with the kingdom of God. We keep taking the path of least resistance, the path of pleasure, the path of familiarity, rather than doing the work to change course - and we are absolutely responsible for perpetuating the patterns.
BUT - there's another way possible. We'll get to that tomorrow.