I didn’t know the name for it at the time, but one morning last week I experienced an acute and painful case of Cognitive Overload. It was the day I had been looking forward to for two months, when I would drive up to Pippin’s; the day before that I’d started packing my car with the books and food and even a 50-ft garden hose I was going to take to the family there in far-Northern California.
The morning of, I read an article about the coronavirus before I got dressed, and for the next two hours I debated whether I should change my plans. What if I were asymptomatically infected already? I could be the one responsible for bringing the pathogen to a relatively remote area. That was my main concern, and I worked myself into tears not being able to decide what to do.
Eventually all of my daughters weighed in, and the Professor, too. They didn’t just say, “Go ahead,” or “Come!” but they gave their reasons, which helped me choose among my own jangling thoughts and pick a course of action. I went.
I took along a dozen Mars Hill Audio Journal CD’s for the ride because I thought I might catch up on some of the interviews. One of the first ones I listened to was of Alan Jacobs talking about his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Toward the end of the interview when he and Ken Myers were talking about how thinking takes time and effort, and how “practical discernment must be cultivated and developed over time,” he mentioned a discussion he had with Jonathan Rauch about an aspect of thinking that Rauch told him he hadn’t emphasized enough; here are some snippets I transcribed:
“Jonathan Rauch reminded him of the inability of any one human being to bear the cognitive load of decision making that we are called upon to do every day… there is a necessity to offload some of this responsibility to a reliable and healthy community. Each of us individually can’t know what we need to know about every issue; that means we have to trust other people to help guide us and inform us. We just don’t have the cognitive energy to be able to do this…. that triage is impossible for any of us to do on our own. Don’t listen to the people who tell you to think for yourself. It’s not possible to think for yourself… we are always embedded both socially and temporally… That can work for us, if we see to it that we are properly and helpfully embedded.”
There I was, driving up Highway 5, peacefully following through on a decision that I had made by offloading some of my cognitive load. 🙂 When I had a husband to confer with, that would have been enough community. Various articles on the Internet aren’t helpful because they aren’t humans in my community, but thank God I am embedded in a family.
In the days since then, I’ve been grateful for other communities that I am part of, for better or worse, and the way they have taken some of the load. We pray that by God’s providence, whether the decisions of our civic authorities are always the best or not, they will turn out for the best in the end. The governor of my state said that everyone in my age group should stay home, period. Soon afterward, the more immediate area I live in came under “shelter in place” orders.
I remember the many years during which I would defer to my husband about many, many decisions that I didn’t always think he made with the most wisdom — even then I was often glad not to have to think through every last decision on my own; it was enough that I had the good judgment to defer. Maybe my tears last week were partly the cumulative outflow of five years of pent-up frustrations, the weight of a widow’s decision fatigue.
Before I learned of the governor’s edict, I had planned to attend church as soon as I returned, though everyone was debating about the prudence of that, even those of us who know that it’s not through the Holy Mysteries in the chalice that we could share pathogens. It’s all of us breathing parishioners and the surfaces we touch…. Here also I have been relieved of the exhausting effort to have perfect wisdom. My rector, with these words, has passed on to us the decision of our bishop to close the church for at least two weeks:
“Let us realize that we simply cannot know the burdens that our Bishops carry as pastors. We all heard the incredible words of the Savior on Sunday about the “Good Shepherd” in John 10 in honor of St Gregory Palamas, how a true bishop cares for the flock…. let’s remember that the bishop has the ‘mind of the Church’ and so we receive his words, actions and requests with joy, and yes, obedience.”
And Monk Seraphim of Mull Monastery, as he was embarking on a trip through five airports on his return to Scotland, wrote to us:
“This is not our time to ‘shine’ by showing empty courage and adolescent bravado. A Christian shines through humility and sacrifice of one’s self, sacrifice of one’s ‘courageous’ image in the world.
“We are human beings, made of flesh and bones. Flesh and bones can become Chalices of God’s presence in the world, but they can also become ill. As a Christian, my duty is to comfort and to love, to keep myself and my neighbour from harm.”
“Pray for the weak and those most exposed, and try to help any way you can. Forget about ‘playing it cool’ – no one rejoices in our pride except the evil one. Be human. Be a human being, surrounded by human beings, loving them, helping them, protecting them. In this simple, living, non ‘heroic’ attitude is the Cross that will lead to the Resurrection.”
I did try to protect my fellow humans as I traveled down the state. I used so many homemade alcohol wipes at gas stations and rest stops that my hands were in great need of TLC last night. Today I’m resting from the trip, and feeling comforted and joyful because of God’s care for me.
I want to tell you, too, more about my visit and fun with the grandkids, but for now I’ll just mention that I saw a thousand ? or so Western Redbud trees and bushes on my travels. The grass on the California hills is still mostly brown, changing to gray-green in some places, and these bright pink splashes all over the place are also speaking JOY!