Science teaches us that our life experiences are reflected in changing brain structures. Trauma creates enduring damage, they believe, even over multiple generations, but our brain’s ability to continue changing (“neuroplasticity”) can help us find recovery to a “healthy” brain norm.
But what if the way that distressing experiences affect us is more akin to growing protective burls in our brains? If that’s the case, trauma may make us unfit for cheap, ordinary use but ultimately far more valuable in the hands of those who know how to work with our unusual beauty.
Tree burls fascinate me. They are the “scars” that mark where an injury has been done — most often a fungus or insect infestation. The tree’s own life-giving processes wrap and isolate the injury, allowing healthy growth to continue while leaving the mark of the trauma visible.
Burls show us a place where a tree has suffered and compensated. They can look remarkably tortuous, speaking volumes about the trauma overcome.
And yet the wood that grows in the places of these injuries is highly prized. Fine woodworkers use extremely thin slices as veneers to create beautiful surfaces for objects that would otherwise be more ordinary.
Large burls may be sliced thick to create remarkable home furnishings.
When scientists present images of brain scans, the images from those with mental health diagnoses often look as tortuous and tormented as a burl.
Science also recognizes the potential for change in these difficult brains. “Neuroplasticity” is the word that explains the constant reshaping and “rewiring” of our brains over time. Science is generally confident that at some time we’ll discover the right devices for retooling a tormented brain into conformity with norms.
But I find myself with a question: is it possible that these “brain burls” have grown as a result of a life-protective process? Could it be that people with “brain burls” have something uniquely beautiful to offer, in the same way that we value the beauty of burled tree woods?
If that’s the case, then trauma recovery might include discovering the beauty in what our life-giving and protective “brain burls” have grown.
I know that in this world we will all have trouble. Still God says that God has overcome this world (John 16:33).
As I live with my own burls, I trust that the overcoming power of God will bring beauty — even in this world — from the twists and turns of trauma and recovery that challenge me.