My youngest biological sister* got married a few weeks ago. After the wedding, I was talking with my mother and my sister’s husband’s grandmother about an event that had occurred in my brother-in-law’s family a few months earlier.
One of my brother-in-law’s cousins owns a farm, and he was driving his tractor from one field to another when he hit his daughter. She suffered significant brain damage, and the doctors who treated her warned that she may never fully regain her cognitive and motor functions. However, here we are, a few months later, and she has regained her ability to recognize people, her memory of people from before the accident seems to be unimpaired, and while she is paralyzed on one side of her body, she seems to be beginning to recover motor functions there as well.
Her recovery is pretty remarkable, but not unheard of. The reality is that we are only beginning to crack the inner workings of the human brain, and it’s alternating fragility and resilience is only beginning to be understood in any meaningful way. Stories such as this girl’s are amazing, but not miraculous.
Or so I think.
As the grandmother was winding down her description of the child’s injuries and recovery, I prepared to make a comment about how complex and amazing the human brain is, and how astounding it is that people can recover from even serious brain injuries – and, hey, the doctors probably had a bit of a hand in it to, so let’s give them some credit. Before I could do more than open my mouth, though, the grandmother began describing this sequence not as the amazing yet natural processes of a complex brain coupled with modern medicine, but as proof that God was watching over the girl and working miracles. My mother immediately jumped in and began affirming everything that the grandmother said.
Although the question formed in my mind, I did have the good sense to not ask “if God is watching over her, why did he let her get hit by the tractor in the first place?” Under the circumstances, such a question would have done no good, and would probably just have upset people whose nerves were already frayed by recent events. Still, even if it had been a time or place where such a question would not have come off as just plain callous, I’d likely have been given the usual non-answers such as “God working in mysterious ways” or “God has to allow bad to happen so that good can also happen.”
So, I sat there silently.
But, ever since then, as I have not been able to get this conversation out of my mind. People who don’t believe in particular things, be they gods, ghosts, leprechauns, or unicorns, are often accused of lacking a sense of wonder. This is bullshit, though. I have nothing but awe and a sense of wonder at the fact that we have evolved a brain that, under the correct conditions, is capable of healing from even catastrophic injuries. Likewise, I am struck by a sense of awe and wonder every time I think about the working of a cell or the presence of quasars, black holes, and novas. To crack that up to some paranormal entity, regardless of the nature of that entity, is not to revel in wonder and awe, it is to deny it by putting it into a black box and labeling it “unexplainable.”
I may reject the notion of miracles, but I do so accepting the reality of very real and very amazing things, such as a brain that can heal itself or a star that can explode, creating the raw materials for future stars and planets. Reality is truly amazing.
Some would say that awe and wonder are beside the point in this case, and that the notion that a god was looking out for the child gives the grandmother comfort. This certainly seems to be true, and it is for that reason that I kept my mouth shut. But, in order to maintain this belief, she must either not think too deeply about the belief or else accept a God that is ambivalent at best and capricious at worst – healing the child only after allowing her to be hit by the tractor (or if we are going with an omniscient and omnipotent deity that set everything into motion, making her be hit by the tractor). Regardless, it seems more comforting to accept the fact that we are amazing creatures lucky enough to live in an amazing universe, and capable of healing when circumstances are right (and with a little help of other members of our species) than to spend time contemplating a cosmic entity that is just as likely to aid us as to allow us to come to tremendous harm.
However, this is yet another circumstance in which it becomes clear that, really, I just don’t think the way that most other people I know think. And with this sort of introspection, you can bet that I am a blast at parties.
*I have three biological sisters and three adopted sisters, and since everyone always asks this, no I don’t have any brothers.