I’m comforted, too, that there’s empirical evidence to support this symbiotic experience. One need only look deep within ourselves—at the human brain. It’s divided into two anatomical parts: the left and right hemispheres. The left primarily handles language and logic related tasks such as communication, computation and fact retrieval. The right tackles very different kinds of tasks such as taking in and making sense of visual information, making comparisons or estimations and processing music. In a much more basic sense, the left side is the workhorse and the right is the “touchy, feely” side.
One might assume that such vast differences would naturally cause dissonance. But ironically nothing could be farther from the truth. The two hemispheres work in an intricately cooperative relationship, carefully balancing tasks and sharing information. Ultimately, the presence and functions of both sides are necessary. It’s this asymmetry that provides a much more full, rich human experience. And personally, I needn’t look far for a verifiable example of how exactly this mysterious relationship works.
“I not—ng—ng—do that!” Mark cried out as tears formed white trails down his cheeks. “I not!”
He was upset, honestly surprised at what his own tiny hands had done. He couldn’t read it. But he’d begged to hold my Bible. He’d seen me pour over it so many times. And he, too, wanted the experience of looking at its beautiful pages. So, I had placed it in front of him on the floor with a gentle reminder to be very careful. But the gilded pages were impossibly thin, nearly translucent. And as soon as I heard the sound, I knew what had happened without even turning around. Suffice it to say that a few of the pages in the book of Zephaniah will never be the same.
“I not! I not, Momma!” he continued to cry as he ran out of the room.
The left side of my brain immediately took Mark’s words at face value. How could he outright deny doing it? I heard it. I saw it. The cold, hard evidence was right there. But the right side of my brain interpreted something just as important: Mark’s tone and feelings. I was simultaneously receiving and processing two different sets of information, yet both sides of my brain were working together in a concerted effort to piece together the entirety of what Mark was communicating. The hemispheres inside my head weren’t in conflict. There was immediate and simultaneous synergy.
“Mark?” I said quietly as I peeked into his room. “You didn’t mean to do it, did you?”
To model clear articulation and speech patterns for Mark, I’d gotten into the habit of repeating what I thought it was he was trying to communicate. And this time was no different. Sure, his words clearly stated that he hadn’t done it. But his overt remorse and shame told a completely different story.
Mark shook his head emphatically, the lenses of his tiny glasses now covered in tears.
“I not—ng—do it, Momma! I not,” he continued to say as he wrung his fists together in his lap. His fingers were clenched so tightly that I could see little drops of blood splattered on his pants. He’d dug his nails into his palms again.
“I know you didn’t mean to do it,” I said quietly as I sat down next to him on the bed. I took off his glasses, wiped them clean and then went to work at untangling his fingers. “Want to know something?”
Mark looked up and nodded.
“Guess who also ripped some of those pages?” I said with a grin. I waited patiently as the answer slowly dawned on Mark that I, too, had caused the same grievous accident. There were a few pages in the books of Nehemiah and 1 Corinthians that will never be the same again as well.
Learning and growing is never easy. And neither is choosing to live in a space where science and spirituality cohabitate. Obvious differences make abiding in this area of commonality murky and unsettling. It can lead to a wormhole of even more complicated questions. It challenges long-held beliefs. Confusion can clatter inside the head and lingering doubts clutter up the heart. Yet these differences needn’t be complete “deal breakers,” either. Intentionally choosing to inhabit this space where one influences and informs the other is both the puzzle and the prize. Despite our inability to fully comprehend how, there can be harmony. It’s us who’ve muddled up the relationship, opting for ease rather than the complete picture—a picture that may just be too difficult for our preconditioned perspectives to fully understand.
My son’s IQ continues to slowly decrease. His struggles to process and recall information continue to increase. His once debilitating but infrequent headaches are now the norm, along with widespread but unexplained joint pain. And as Mark’s momma, I have the privilege and the challenge of walking with him through it all. Despite science’s best efforts, a specific diagnosis continues to evade us. Yet it’s absence doesn’t diminish Mark’s symptoms and suffering in any way. How senseless it would be to conclude that there is no true cause simply because it hasn’t been fully figured out yet. Mark feels the pain. I hear his frustration. I see his struggles.
To practice both science and spirituality fully, we must come to the same conclusion: We don’t know. We need to navigate with humility. It’s uncomfortable, but necessary to making progress in either camp. It’s the person who readily admits that he or she doesn’t have all the answers that steps into the realm of science. It’s the same kind of person—who knows that all the answers can’t be found solely within themselves—who also seeks God. And I believe it’s this same kind of openness with which we should wrap the dialogue and uncertainties that arise when we allow the empirical and the Divine to collide.
Discord is stressful. And that’s exactly how inhabiting this middle ground might initially feel. No one likes conflict. For our own mental clarity, it’s tempting to push one out entirely. It’s the easy and therefore compelling thing to do. We’d much rather dwell safely in a space of knowing for sure, barricading ourselves behind towers constructed of the concrete that science provides or surrounding ourselves with the moral superiority that spirituality affords. Yet a willingness to allow this discourse to happen can be the very thing that strengthens and spurs us forward. Purposing to exist and explore in both spaces—without the exclusion of the other—can provide the diversity needed to make real progress in both areas.
Despite all of Mark’s challenges and shortcomings, when he’s at ease he’s fearless. At home, he plays with his toys unshackled by the confines of preset rules. He colors how he wants to, refusing to be boxed in by the dark lines before him. He’s eager to learn, asking constant questions about everything around him. Yet he requires a great deal of time to process his thoughts and any new information he receives. And as a family, we make accommodations to better meet these needs.
As I’ve given myself more time to process the experience of being Mark’s mom, I’ve come to realize that the same is true for all of us, too. Difficult things take time to mull over, to make sense of. It’s unfair to expect religion and science to hold hands and “play nice” right away—let alone in the ways we want them to. But like most things worth chasing, this process is worth the time and effort. It doesn’t just happen. But it can flourish in the right environment. Like Mark safely tucked away at home where he can explore without judgment, experiment without fear and process without pressure, science and religion can do the same. And choosing to learn from a little boy can lead us all to a very special space where this is possible.