In my church study sits a coffee cup, the contents of which looks like about a dozen Silly Putty eggs were cracked open and plopped in there. The big wad of putty was given to me years ago by my brother, who told me squeezing it while I worked would relieve tension and build hand strength. I cannot say I use it much for that, but it does get used most every week. Trying to occupy children while I’m speaking to their parents in my study, I often ask them if they would like to play with it. They love flattening it out on the table in my study or rolling it into balls. Some even come in now and ask, “Pastor York, can I play with your putty?”
The putty does serve another purpose. It reminds me of human plasticity.
I like saying that word – plasticity. It’s like hominy or Amenemope, the name of the Egyptian wise man I told my Old Testament students about this week when studying Proverbs. These words (at least after we learn to pronounce them) just roll off our rubbery tongues and lips. Go ahead and have some fun feeling your mouth work as you say it out loud: “Plasticity” (hit the hyperlink if you need help pronouncing it).
Our bodies are made from dust and about 60% water. That means we are a fairly wet clay mixture, flexible and able to be formed. I have just come off minor knee surgery two weeks ago to trim off a bit of the meniscus pad in my knee. The loose piece was preventing the knee’s hinge from functioning fully without pain. My knee feels great now, but the real pain is that between the injury from basketball and surgery, as I peg-legged around without walking properly, the quadriceps in my thigh shut down. So my upper leg, not that big to begin with anyway, looks like one of those Silly Putty snakes the kids roll out. I’m having to do rehab to rebuild some muscle tone so I can walk properly and maybe even get back on the basketball court (hope Miriam doesn’t read this). Three months of exercise to get back what I lost in three weeks.
I’m learning how our brains have plasticity also. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr opens up his book with a great deal of research showing how the model of the brain scientists and neurologists once used is changing. Up until recently, they thought adult brains were relatively static and fixed, but they are realizing that its neurons are constantly being remapped and rewired. As Carr says, “The genius of our brain’s construction is not that it contains a lot of hard-wiring but that it doesn’t.” Scientists are using the word “plasticity” and “mega-plasticity” to describe what they are seeing. One of the eye-opening conclusions they are drawing in their studies is that the brain has been created (they say “has evolved” but we will not trifle with that here) to reorganize itself in order to give us what we desire. In other words, you are so fearfully and wonderfully made that your brain is constantly responding with physiological changes to make the map between your desires and body responses shorter, more ingrained, and more satisfying. That’s great news when you are trying to learn an important skill or even overcome a stroke. Yet, and this is the thesis of Carr’s book, it’s terrifying when you begin giving into an addiction, be it drugs or the internet. “Bad habits can be ingrained in our neurons as easily as good ones,” Carr states. It’s not that the plasticity causes the cocaine habit or the Facebook addiction. Rather, the repeated return to a desire impresses it so deeply into our physiology we begin to feel that we cannot go without it because we are remapping our brain that way. Spend too much time in “the shallows” of the internet, and you won’t want to go into the deeps such as concentrating on reading a good book.
Of course, though the science gives us some of the details of these matters, from the Good Book we should already know this truth. After all, He is the Potter and we but the clay, with even our most inward parts spun on His wheel (Psalm 139:13-16). Believers are called to a life of plasticity, yet also called to make sure we are formed in the right way. We are called to be transformed by God’s will, not conformed or pressed into the world’s molds (Romans 12:1-2). I heard this weekend in a conference from one of my friends on this blog that we need to be careful about our friendships, for a companion of fools can suffer harm. Why? Because we will learn their ways, for our friends shape who we are. God spare us from Pharaoh’s path, who repeatedly disobeyed the Lord until it became habitual. The result? His heart was hardened (think clay out in the sun) which led him into his own destruction. The fool’s life is one of thinking that repeatedly doing the same wrong action will bring different results.
You are plastic, but you are not elastic. You are not like a rubber band, always snapping right back into your former shape. Instead, each desire, thought, and action is molding you. Why not stop right here, acknowledge the One in whose hands you are being molded, and ask Him to warm you like clay to His will? Then, like the leg lifts I am having to do to remold this old leg, just expect He will call you to an obedience that is rigorous. Yet remember why. He is shaping you into the image of His Son, which means you have a lot of stretching to do.