Entanglement: The Gift of Chameleons
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
A woman named Amanda has a neurological condition called Mirror Touch Synesthesia. I heard about her on an NPR podcast called Invisibilia, which focuses on the invisible forces that motivate us and connect us.
If you stubbed your toe in Amanda’s presence, her toe would begin to throb. If you ate a meal with Amanda, she would feel as if food was being shoved in her mouth. One time at the grocery story, Amanda saw a small child fall backwards and smack his head on the hard floor. She feel to the ground with crippling pain, her vision blurry, and crawled to the wailing child, calling out desperately for someone to help him. Because she wouldn’t feel better until he did.
In Corinthians today Paul talks about his obligation to proclaim the gospel. He says, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Then in order to do this, Paul uses an unusual tactic. He claims that he will go as far as to become the person he is trying to “win,” or to “save” or to proclaim the gospel to.
He writes to the Corinthians, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law, so that I might win those under the law.
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law so that I might win those outside the law.
To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.
I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
Winning, these different groups of people means to save them, and another word for save is to heal. Paul uses the tactics of a chameleon; the ability to become his surroundings, in order to more effectively heal or save groups of people.
Amanda does not have this luxury —she must feel other people, her brain mandates it. And her healing is directly related to the healing of those around her, because she feels them.
With Mirror Touch Synesthesia, the areas in the brain that produce empathy are overactive. “In an article from LiveScience, mirror-touch synesthetes talk about their experiences and how this accentuated empathy has shaped their lives. One person said she felt her synesthesia is, “a positive thing because I believe it makes me more considerate about the feelings of others.”
Most of us have mirror neurons in our brains, meaning when I see you do something, neurons fire in my brain, as if I were doing that very thing. I may cringe, I may feel an emotion, but I won’t physically feel what you are doing.
Mirror touch synesthesia goes a step further, as an entangling of particles. When Amanda saw the small child hit his head, did she become him for a moment? Or was she still a distinct and separate human, with funky neuron activity? What are the boundaries of our person, of our selves? If it is possible for some people to literally feel the pain of others, where do I end and you begin?
This brings me to the title of my sermon, and the idea my mind has been hungry learning about all week. Entanglement. I am going to get amateur sciencey on you for a minute, so bear with me.
Entanglement, at its most basic level, is the idea that two once distinct and separate molecules become connected and interdependent. Entanglement theory describes a state in which two separate beings can no longer be described separately; they, in essence, become one another, and any action on the one will have a reaction in the other so that the two once separate beings become, together, a system. A new reality.
Let’s say we have a blue molecule, a small blue ball of gas and energy, which always spins clockwise. Then picture a similar molecule, a red ball of gas, that always spins counter-clockwise. These two molecules, in their travels through space, one day collide and exchange energy. The blue molecule and the red molecule shed parts of themselves into each other and as they move apart again. In entanglement theory, if the blue molecule were to change its direction of spin, the red molecule would too, at exactly the same time. Suddenly these two once separate spheres, that always spun one way or another, influence each other, and act in perfect tandem, although separated, and without enough time for information to travel between the two.
The idea of entanglement completely troubles the way Physicists understand, to put it crassly, the way stuff works, the way the universe operates. It seems clear that I am over here, and you are over there, and it would take some time for me to walk to you. If we were entangled particles, whatever I did or whatever happened to me, would happen to you at exactly the same time, without time for information to travel between us. “We don’t understand it,” one physicist said, “but it is just there, happening. The math works.”
The great paradox of entanglement theory, is that if either object were to be disrupted in some way they would dis-entangle. Now they are separate again, blue and red and nothing else. The connectivity is fragile and can be disrupted. But the very fact that it happens at all has captured the attention of physicists, philosophers, and just about anyone who cares to dwell on the thought for some time.
If you were here last week, you heard me mention that the Gospel of Mark has the most amount of physical healings of any of the Gospels, and we are going to be reading from Mark for the next couple weeks- and as we move into the season of Lent, where we at First Church will focus on Embodied Spiritual Practice. The idea of Entanglement, and even of mirror touch synesthesia, made me wonder, just how connected are our bodies?
If we are all a collection of molecules; then there is a potential at any given time for some of the “stuff” that makes me me to mix with the “stuff” that makes you you. And after we interact, we walk away with some of each other. Suddenly, though we continue to understand ourselves as separate entities with different goals, different clothes, separate wishes for what we want for dinner; there is some fundamental (I mean fundamental to the level of the molecule) suddenly, there is a new connection between us that didn’t exist before. Suddenly the system of molecules that make up my personhood is tied together with the system of molecules that makes up yours.
Did Jesus had some sort of divine empathy, an ability to opt into mirror touch synesthesia, the power to entangle, that allowed him to become the identified patient, and transform himself, and them simultaneously transform those he healed? Who knows, but it is fun to think about.
Jesus went to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, who lay in bed with a fever, took her by the hand, lifter her up, and the first thing she did was that she began to serve them. For a woman, this could mean that she was waiting on them, providing food, etc. But the verb to serve is διακονέω/diakoneó, also meaning to minister. We get the word ‘deacon,’ from diakoneó, It is the same verb that Jesus instructs his disciples to do, later in Mark. It means to carry out the needs of other’s as the Lord guides, in an active and practical way. This woman is the first deacon. The first person who gets it, who follows Jesus, and serves in the way he does. Who perhaps sees the interconnectedness of beings.
If Paul becomes a chameleon to preach the gospel, and Jesus emphasizes preaching the gospel as healing, we have two separate accounts of something like entanglement as healing. Of knowing our extreme interconnectedness, and using it to heal people, as if my well being were not just connected to yours, but the same as yours. Many of our Initiates are unclear about what they want to do when they grow up, which is appropriate, but they are clear that they want to do something that helps people. Quite simply.
The idea of interconnectivity isn’t new. Religious narratives often insist that we are all connected, to one another, and to the world around us. Research on entanglement –surprises us who subscribe to the idea of connectivity—for it has shown that molecules in space, physical objects we can measure, can become “entangled,” or connected, and that this act changes the fundamental nature of the molecules.
Perhaps this impulse to serve one another comes with a deep knowledge of our already interconnectivity. What happens to you, directly affects my well being. We are the body of Christ, we are one in Christ. This means now, that as a Faith community, we can understand ourselves as a living breathing, system of organisms, that directly effect one another, even if only by sitting side by side every Sunday. But we know now not to underestimate the power of just sitting alone side of one another. It is of course good to know the boundaries of our energies, and our selves, so we do not over extend ourselves and feel the pain of the world, or confuse ourselves with others. But this research shows the dramatic possibility of connection; that the spaces between us are teaming with possibility.
“Gerald May, a MD who practices psychotherapy in DC, writes of the importance of community in the healing process: “God’s grace through community involves something far greater than other people’s support and perspective. The power of grace is nowhere as brilliant nor as mystical as in communities of faith. Its power includes not just love that comes from people and through people but love that pours forth among people as if through the very spaces between one person and the next. Just to be in such an atmosphere is to be bathed in healing power.” Let it be so. Amen.