Living in all dimensions
Some question whether Rom Houbens is actually "locked in" and communicating, and you can find that argument out there. It's not why I'm writing this morning.
In the ABC story where I found this news were some quotes from neurologists who explained the difference between being in a "vegetative" coma and being here.
For example, a person who is in a vegetative state and a person who is "locked-in" would both be paralyzed to some degree. Both patients would likely open their eyes and look around.So ... Consider whether these descriptions apply to those of us who have not been physically paralyzed. How much of life do we spend in mere wakefulness, and how much do we spend in self-awareness? How often are we just looking around and functioning, and how often are we aware, feeling and thinking?
But, as Dr. James L. Bernat of the American Academy of Neurology explained, these two individuals would be considered to have two different definitions of "consciousness."
"One is called wakefulness; eyes open, eyes moving -- that element is conducted primarily by the brainstem," Bernat said. "The second dimension of consciousness requires self-awareness -- they're aware of what's going on, they can feel, they can think.
"People in the vegetative state have only the wakeful dimension," he said.
A coma would be a state of full paralysis and full unconsciousness similar to the experience of going under anesthesia. Neurologists even define a third state in people with brain injuries as "minimally conscious," which is a state of semi-wakefulness and limited self-awareness.
A few years ago I visited an optometrist because my once-20/20 vision now required reading glasses. During the course of the examination, he discovered one eye was doing most of the work for me. As a result my depth perception was very limited. He gave me a pair of glasses with a prism that forces my eyes to work together.
After a few days of adjustment, my world opened up. My eyes still regularly fall into their old habits, and often it takes a bit of concentration to see the world as it is. In my most self-aware moments, the depth perception kicks in on its own. If you have always seen in three dimensions, you may not realize how incredible it is to see from here to there, front to back, not just left to right. My left eye is the lazy one, content to let me live in two dimensions. When it's fallen back into old habits nowadays, all I have to do is say to myself, "Left eye," and the world opens up again. It just takes a pause to reorient myself.
Not long ago I felt paralyzed sitting in the day-job office, staring at a computer screen with several writing projects waiting for my attention. The office is not far from a mighty river, so I took a walk and sat down on a park bench along the water with a pen and pad. On that calm day I absorbed a peace that surpasses understanding. My mind and soul unwound and woke up.
In 45 minutes I wrote two days worth of notes and the genesis of this essay. That's the power of simply being self-aware, a power within each of us if we simply pause to look for it.
Everyday life can beat us into a state of simple wakefulness. We turn off our consciousness as we drive the same route twice a day; we surf aimlessly around Web sites; we park in front of an entertainment center to watch people play games or act out stories for us.
Self-awareness is a little daunting — you get in touch with realities like your own mortality — but you reach out for a sense of purpose. When you find that purpose and that passion, you cling to it and work toward fulfilling that purpose, often to slip back into wakefulness, which so reseumbles self-awareness but is so much less.
Assuming the doctor's claims are true, what was it like to be Rom Houbens, wanting to jump up and say "I am here! I have a life! I have purpose!" The same struggle occurs inside our minds as the merely wakeful entity wanders about, looks around, walks and talks but does not notice the sentient, paralyzed soul inside.
Sitting on that park bench, I resolved that one purpose in my life will be to stay awake and aware, to awaken and empower others. This walking-about, zombie-like existence does not have to be as good as it gets. Each of us has the spark to be more, and the spark contains the seed of true freedom, authentic liberty.
The world is an astonishing place when we focus our senses. How much more astonishing are our minds when we do the same.