There is a part of you that simply feels things, but has no capacity at all for language, or any other abstract ideas such as time, grace, love, truth, or justice. That part of you, the seat of your emotions in the brain, the part of you that just feels, is called the limbic system.
That explains why, when someone hurts you and then apologizes, you may genuinely forgive them and yet the pain may linger for quite some time. Your limbic brain doesn’t understand right and wrong, or apologies — all abstract ideas — it just feels. So it takes time for the feelings to subside. While that time passes, most people (especially religious ones), beat themselves up for not genuinely forgiving.
The takeaway here: There’s literally nothing you can do about it. It just takes time.
There is another part of your brain (this is called the “triune brain” theory, by the way), even more primitive, called the lizard brain. The lizard brain controls more or less automatic things like your heartbeat, digestion, swallowing, etc. This is located in the brain stem. The “fight or flight” mechanism is located here.
The stem is the most basic part of the brain. It is wrapped in the limbic brain, and then the neocortex (the part that evolved most recently) is on the outside.
Why does any of this matter?
When something upsetting happens to you, you will experience it in a predictable way. Your heart rate will speed up, your palms will sweat, your face will flush. That’s your lizard brain, preparing you to fight or flee. If you do neither of those things, you will become aware of intense emotion — fear, jealousy, anger, frustration, etc. The emotion itself is happening in your limbic brain, but your awareness of that emotion is happening in your neocortex.
This means under stress, fight or flight happens first. If you stay in the situation, you will sense yourself being flooded by very powerful emotions. But since these emotions come from a part of your brain that doesn’t understand language, any ideas you have about these emotions — who caused them, why they’re so powerful, what you should do, etc. — comes from your neocortex. The part of you that reasons, thinks, makes plans, explains things, etc. This part of your brain is slowest.
See my point yet? When you are offended, angry, hurt, upset, etc., your first response will nearly always be irrational. It will come from your lizard brain or limbic brain, and will be based on nothing more than 1) getting away; 2) hitting someone [both lizard brain functions], or 3) feeling offended, upset, ticked off, hurt, etc. (limbic stuff).
Choosing the right course of action depends on not taking action until you are capable of thinking rationally since (interestingly enough) it is also in our rational brain that live concepts such as tolerance, patience, forgiveness, and compassion.
Only one part of the brain governs you at a time. When you’re in fight or flight mode, you will feel only fear (this most primitive emotion is the only one the lizard brain connects to). When you are feeling something very passionately, you will not be able to reason clearly or access those all-important higher order functions. This is to say:
You are wired to NOT be rational.
To do anything in life other than react, react, react every second of the day, you must develop the discipline that is involved in waiting, thinking something through, learning not to take your emotions so seriously, actually questioning the view of the world you might get from your lizard and limbic brains.
You are a human being. You can reason things out. You can refuse to fight or run. You can remain engaged, take responsibility for your feelings, and act out of that sense of responsibility, which comes from your neocortex. Most important, if you withhold acting from the lizard or limbic brains, you can take a situation and “turn it over” to your higher order functions. Only then can you choose to operate on faith instead of fear, forgiveness instead of resentment, love instead of selfishness, and compassion instead of sheer social Darwinism.
If you do not learn this discipline of withholding response, and willingly turning your decisions over to be made in your neocortex, you will live with it exactly backwards all your life.
You’ll lash out and hit someone, or run away, or get carried away by your emotions (lizard and limbic brain activities), and then you will use your rational brain to defend your actions after the fact. That is not reason. It is rationalization, which is a uniquely human capacity that allows us to commit horrible atrocities and then angrily defend ourselves when someone questions what we have done.
This is how most people live all of their lives.
Human evil is done when people act consistently from the lizard brain or limbic brain, and use the neocortex only to justify and defend their sub-human responses.
Evil, like most things, exists on a continuum. We’ve all done evil things, but most of us are not fully evil people.
But the mechanism is the same.
Those most committed to living by the immediate responses of their lizard and limbic brains gradually become more and more evil.
From Osama bin Laden to your chronically destructive ex, even to your own moments of evil, that’s pretty much how it works. The issue is not that evil and destructive people refuse to use the higher part of their brains. It is much worse than that. They actually use their reasoning powers in the service of their evil actions, constantly justifying everything they do both to themselves and others.
That is why you come by evil behaviors so naturally. Admit it. Many times you have reacted on a lizard or limbic level to something, and then come up with a rationalization for it. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Being bad is the easiest thing to do. It is what happens when people follow the path of least resistance, doing what comes most naturally. That is why it is critical that parents teach their children, while the children are still small, to resist many of their base urges to take, to hit, to react, to yell and scream, and why the teaching of sound sexual discipline is so important moving into adolescence. It lays the groundwork for children to become adults who have not surrendered to this very natural process that will, quite naturally, at various levels, create dangerous and destructive human beings.
It is also why adults must consciously commit to a life of learning how to respond from the neocortex, accessing reason and compassion and forgiveness. Anything other than conscious commitment to this process will keep you working off that same old sub-human response menu.
Next time you read that meme on Facebook that ticks you off, and you respond in that moment, whatever you say is likely not rational at all, but a response from lizard or limbic, disguised in rational words and arguments. You’re probably just mad. If I could see you hitting the keys as you type your response, I could tell for sure.
Next time you hear that sermon that provokes strong disagreement and a flash of anger– limbic brain. Maybe even lizard brain, as you sense your entire way of life being deeply threatened.
Next time someone hurts one of your children — limbic brain.
Next time your child is disobedient –limbic or lizard brain.
Those strong emotional reactions, and even urges to fight or flee, are, of course, totally normal. But living according to them will keep you from living rationally and compassionately. They will keep you from being able to forgive, and live free of fear and grudges.
The way out is the path that is hardest to follow: allowing your abstract, rational brain to govern your other two brains and keep them in their place.
Showing you that path is the proper role of all good religion and all good therapy, whether Christian or secular. Any religion or therapy that fails to do that is part of the problem, not part of the solution.