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Merry only has half a brain
A man with no left brain and why it was nearly good for him.
If Merry's head was an ice cream cone, he only had half a scoop.
In my college town, there was your usual hipster coffee shop so you could go study while eating a muffin. Highland Coffee, I believe it was called.
Merry hung around near the front door, waiting to say hello to anyone. Once you got over the shocking sight of his half-imploded skull, Merry was lovely. Everyone adored him.
He gazed at me with just one eye, cloudy and unfocused. The other eye was blindly peering into the void. And yet, Merry truly "saw" me in a way that was unlike the way anyone else I knew.
Merry was missing the left hemisphere of his brain. Meaning, he had no ability, for example, to judge your attractiveness by the size of your chin or your socioeconomic position by your choice of hoodie. He could not examine the composition of your parts and then use those to put you into a category. Only the left hemisphere can do that.
Merry could only take you in all at once, as if you were rapture.
For those of us with both hemispheres, it’s hard to resist the gravity of the left brain — we live in a world designed by it. Categories and quantification. We, for example, calculate the value of human life to be between $1–$10 million.
The right brain (Merry) would never stand for that.
Until you’ve had the left half of your skull destroyed in a mysterious accident that neither you nor the people around you can recollect, it’s easy to believe that left-brain thinking is “logical” and right-brain thinking is “illogical.”
The truth of the matter is much stranger.
The differences are far more subtle and complex than the pop sci "left brain = logic, right brain = creativity.” Our right brains help invisibly weave together our waking world. So much so that a man with brain damage to his right hemisphere will confidently mistake his wife for a hat and be unfazed by his error.
For the most part, the “person” you feel to be reading these words is your left brain (oversimplifying — will unpack later in the essay).
But there’s a whole other entity (right brain), silently guiding you. It’s almost alien. Mythical.
I involuntarily became that quiet entity.
As a kid, I had seizures that would shut off the left hemisphere of my brain for an hour. I experienced a cosmos very different from this one. Until college, I gave up trying to explain that dream-like childhood experience.
But I was forced to confront it again when I met Merry.
"What's your name?" he would ask me every time.
I suddenly understood the meaning of that question.
We don't ask people's names so we can memorize them. That’s incidental. We really ask so we can communicate our longing for connection. "Taylor" is just a sound I make. We might as well say, "Beep boop," and smile lovingly into each other's eyes. That's the deepest desire of all this social preening anyway (if you're in your right mind [pun intended], at least).
Merry’s true capabilities were unclear. He could speak, but with a very limited vocabulary. I saw him order food once. He couldn’t drive, but he could walk incredibly long distances, which is how he spent most of his days. He didn’t have any family that I knew of.
We would occasionally help him do something like call his disability program. In fact, regulars at the coffee shop spontaneously formed a group chat to keep tabs on him. I had never experienced spontaneous kindness like that.
I guess there was just something about Merry.
He would tell us stories that seemed believable… until the next time all the details had all been rearranged. Where he had really come from and what had happened to his head remain a mystery to me. To him, the conversation wasn’t about getting the facts right, it was about sharing a moment, laughing, and telling jokes.
Merry was funny.
But, one day, Merry wasn't in his normal spot.
"You didn't hear?" Oh no…
"Merry passed away."
We gathered for the final time to exchange stories about him. During the shares, it became clear to me that everyone else thought his grace and lightness was in spite of his missing neural matter.
In fact, it's the opposite. Merry was magical because he was missing the left side of his brain.
I knew that because when I was a kid, for an hour or so, I was more like Merry.
Since the syntax of language sits in the left side of the brain (for most people), I couldn't find the words to comfort my mother as she held me after an intense seizure. In fact, I could only muster the "music" of speech. I fully expected to be able to talk, but I would babble English-sounding nonsense. Very strange.
This inability to speak made my mother’s eyes go wide with fear. But, I was in pure bliss. Colors and shapes bloomed from everywhere. The world seemed to breathe. The boundaries between things dissolved. The boundaries of “me” exploded outward into infinity. But, I think like Merry, I could see my mother without breaking her into parts. Instead, I was just taking her "gestalt" all at once. She was beautiful (still are, Ma).
In Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot” the main character has seizures (like Dostoyevsky himself) and says this about them:
“I feel complete harmony with myself and with the whole world, and this sensation is so powerful and sweet that one would give ten years of life, perhaps one's whole life, for a few seconds of such bliss.”
Needless to say, attempts to explain this over the years got me little more than glassy eyes. Until, pretty recently, I stumbled across the work of Iain McGilchrist, who is a scientist specializing in brain hemisphere differences.
I experienced those differences first hand and second, through Merry.
What emerges from me truly understanding this is no less than a new conception of reality.
In the introduction of McGilchrist’s book “The Master and his Emissary,” he tells us one of Nietzsche's stories to paint a picture of the main idea of his work. It went roughly:
A very wise spiritual master ruled over a small domain. They became very prosperous and grew.
The wise leader knew he could not control every aspect of his kingdom, so he trained emissaries (helpers/servants) to handle the details. It was not only that he did not have the time, but that also he needed to remain ignorant of smaller concerns so that he could maintain the vision that made them so prosperous in the first place.
Eventually, his most powerful emissary began to use his influence to gain personal power and wealth. He saw the leader’s forbearance and wisdom as weakness.
The emissary overthrew the master. The kingdom became a tyranny, and eventually came to ruin.
In this story, the master is the right brain, and the emissary is the left brain.
Merry had no emissary. All there was to him was the wise master.
Yes, he couldn't pay his bills or speak in any detail. Instead of having a left brain as an emissary, we were Merry's emissaries. And that worked just as well, if not better.
Perhaps because, in Merry, his more external left brain (ours) could not tyrannize and diminish his glowing right-brain.
Diminishment of the right brain is the unfortunate fate of modern minds.
The modern world is dominated by the soullessness of the left brain. In essence, he is Milton’s Lucifer. To me, he looks like strip malls and Corporate Memphis. He seeks to sum up. To flatten. To grab. To categorize. To monetize. To consume. Through his tyranny, our spirit is constantly reduced, captured, packaged and sold back to us in an SEO-optimized list of lifehacks that hint at our longing for something greater but constantly fail to make us feel like anything more than automatons.
"Once you label me, you negate me,” – Soren Kierkegaard
Merry simply did not have that option.
But we have a choice.
We can either continue to enslave our spirit to the emissary, or we can wake up to the truth that Merry wordlessly offered me.
Return the master to his rightful throne.
Slow down. See people. Then, follow your deepest inclinations.
There are many well-known ways to get more into a right-brain state of being. The Alexander Technique is one way. Somatic Resonance is another . Hard to screw up here – pretty much the entire world’s spiritual history is a battle against the tyranny of the left brain. It helps me to know that.
There would be no kingdom to tyrannize if it wasn’t for the master’s (right brain) vision. The structural myth of the world we inhabit is invisibly mapped and maintained in the dream-space of the right hemisphere.
To be more like Merry, blissfully awake and in love, may seem naive to the nay-sayers and the choir-hushers, but they are blind to the truth. They are stuck in Plato’s cave.
Here’s the truth: the emissary is a great servant, but a terrible master.
Thanks for reading,
Special thanks to the people who helped me put this together:
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