Did you know that each fully equipped human being comes with a reticular activating system as a standard part? And what is that? A reticular activating system (RAS) is a network of neural fibers running through the brain stem, connecting to other parts of the brain.
Our RAS is involved in regulating scores of important functions such as breathing, the beating of our hearts, and transitioning between wakefulness and sleep.
Another of its most useful capabilities is in functioning as a filter to our senses. Our RAS is what allows us to disregard the mesmerizing flicker of the fluorescent light overhead when we are trying to read. It enables us to ignore the intriguing hum of the air conditioner when our spouses want to talk to us.
In short, our RAS prevents our senses from becoming overwhelmed with all the competing stimuli in our midst. It enables us to choose what we will concentrate upon, and then focus our attention. We could hardly function without the filtering mechanism that our RAS provides.
Of course, we sometimes intentionally develop and employ something like an RAS in other areas of our lives, too, don’t we? Have you ever heard someone say they no longer listen to news relating to tragedies because it’s just too distressing? Or that they choose not to read about places of the world racked by poverty or war or terrorism because it’s all so hopeless? Or that they don’t want to think about thorny social issues that can’t be readily addressed and remedied?
They are employing a self-made filtration system that sorts out the bad news and isolates them from its troubling implications, including the responsibility to care.
Many of us engage in utilizing these self-imposed filtration systems from time to time, thinking that we are sparing ourselves some frustration and pain, thinking we are saving our hearts from loving too widely or deeply and then breaking with the cares of the world.
But is that really the result?
Author C. S. Lewis apparently pondered this human tendency to shelter our hearts and wrote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.” (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves)
Of course it’s tempting to set your filtration system so that you can remain inattentive to ugly human realities. But when you pull your heart away from the world, as Lewis rightly notes, you do not spare it, you lose it. You do not protect it, you condemn it. After all, the heart is the muscle of the soul. You cannot pack it away in cotton for its preservation. You either use it or lose it!
Every major faith system in the world urges compassion, generosity, outreach, and caring. And yes, such engagement with a messy world is risky for us. But failing to open ourselves to the needs of the word could be even riskier. So periodically let’s remember to check our heart’s filters. They may need re-setting.