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Everyone Here is Jim Dandy - 38

Posted Mar 07 2013 7:24am


Pasteboard Masks

What is man that You are mindful of him
Psalms 8:4

I've been reading lately, in communities online, as well as in other media (remember 'books'?) about the so called personality changes which may or may not take place in a person with multiple sclerosis. It is certainly a subject which, if nothing else, resists unambiguous conclusions.

I guess the most effective way to approach the question would be through the evaluation of another person, well known to the examiner on a long term basis, both before and after MS.
Unfortunately, no such person is available to me.

I turn therefore to myself--an interrogation more likely to cast shadows than light.

Walker Percy once wrote an essay about self knowledge in which he posited a scenario wherein a certain man is reading through his horoscope, and the more he reads, the more he thinks Yeah, that really is just like me. Of course, the punchline is that he ultimately discovers he is reading the wrong zodiac sign. He is reading Capricorn, not Leo. The man turns, therefore, to the proper sign and, well, how about that, this one is just like him as well!

So who are we to begin with? That's the first problem. What are we like, how can we accurately describe personality?

Percy went on to describe all the things an observer may be able to objectively state about the planet Jupiter by looking through a telescope, observing the atmosphere, counting moons, appreciating the chemical composition, the data of astronomy. And yet faced with himself, the man may as well be like Virgo or Taurus, Aquarius or Sagittarius. In short, he knows more of a certainty about a planet over 500 million miles from earth than he can confidently say about himself.

If MS has changed us, therefore, what exactly has it changed us from, and what to?

It occurs to me also that those of us who appear most stable on the outside may actually be the least stable on the inside. Jupiter, for instance, would appear to be a big, solid, mass in orbit, and yet we are really not seeing Jupiter at all, but merely its atmosphere. It is a sort of physical facade.

Hark ye yet again--the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.

Or so said Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick.

How many white whales out there? One alone, or one for each member of the crew, one for each episode in the voyage of life?

I am Hyde, and Jekyll too. But how do I parse out the interplay?

I guess my point is this (yes, I have to guess my own point!): It is difficult enough to lay a finger upon personality to begin with, much less say whether a medical condition can change it.

Assuming there is such a thing as a baseline personality for each individual, can the very existence of nerve damage, in and of itself, with no qualifying factors added, cause a change in the same?

I suppose that any compromise to the integrity of a thing is likely enough to alter in some way the essential nature of what it is, how it works--a loose spark plug in a car engine, a lamp cord that has a short, a book from which a page is missing. It would be, of course, a matter of degree, and the deficit may fall anywhere between insignificant and catastrophic.

Consider, for instance, the case of a missing tile on the space shuttle. Consider a rocket engine part that malfunctions at 10,000 feet in the air.

Then again, consider the missing page. Lets say that it is missing from ones copy of War And Peace. Such a thing might be a frustrating discovery, and yet not something likely to cause a complete collapse, a critical error in the integrity of a 2000 page plot and theme.

Where has MS happened to strike? Where has the damage occurred? In a hunk of gray matter that wasn't doing much of anything anyway, or in that other hunk that just happens to move your legs, wiggle your fingers, maintain your left eye?

Is there a place in the brain that maintains and monitors personality, some sort of neuro-electrical gaggle and gear-work of tissue and nerve, synapse and conduction that conveys who we are, not only to ourselves, but to the world at large?

Is this where the soul is too? Shall we say that the soul is nothing more than a conspiracy of anatomical tissue and blood, molecules and neurons, the trickery of electronic activity? People mistake lights in the sky for UFOs all the time, and yet these are found, again and again, to be nothing other than weather balloons or flocks of birds.

In short then, is personality a matter of spirit, or of flesh?

In Auschwitz during World War II certain Nazi "doctors" performed an experiment on an unwilling subject supposedly designed to measure the effects of progressive brain damage. Ultimately what was revealed, as in all such Nazi efforts, was the experimenters' own identity as members of an inferior race.

In any case, their study involved banging a young man over the head with a hammer two or three times, and then standing back to watch what he would do. Having cataloged the effects, they would then repeat the sequence, taking aim, bringing down the hammer, stepping back to observe.

Soon the young man began to go blind. He continued to struggle at his tormenter's command, trying to walk, turn to the left, turn to the right, pick up an object. He had, after all, no other choice than to be as cooperative a patient as possible.

This horror was actually filmed, for the future glory of science no doubt. I myself have seen the film, and it has haunted me ever since.

Now did the young man's personality change as well? Did the doctor's take aim at the personality chamber in the brain? Then again, this was not likely a goal of the exercise. What was the goal? No more than a perverse amusement, I would guess. A pastime of evil.

We have all seen cartoons wherein a character will be knocked silly by a blow on the head, then smacked again so as to return him to normal. But we know now beyond a doubt, thanks to those Nazi doctors, that this is not the way it works.

Damage to the brain, to the spinal cord as a result of MS becomes manifest quite clearly in the physical realm. It may affect sensation, it may affect gait, it may affect muscle tone, it may affect cognition, and all of this is perfectly observable.

But what about the personality, that which cannot be objectively observed.

What we can say with assurance is that personality change is a product of experience, a response to a change in personal reality. Because our circumstances have changed, our viewpoint changes also in order to comprehend what is new. We describe ourselves according to who we seem to be at any given time. Jupiter is suddenly more like Mercury.

And yet, is our response really the same as personality, or is it personality that determines the nature of our response?

I have seen the gamut of reaction to MS in the past few years--ranging, person to person, from anger to insult, from malaise and depression to inspiration and enlivenment. I have seen growth toward faith and bitterness toward death.

Far from being damaged, it would almost seem that personality becomes activated, charged. It stands at attention, opens its eyes, searches both self and heavens. It becomes, in short, as overactive as the hay wired autoimmune system.

I think that it does not change, so much as it invites us to truly become. Here is the perfect moment to grow. Adversity is playing its catalyst role. Therefore, seize the day, and reap the riches disease has unveiled.
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