Story-A Predictive Brain

By all measures, Isra’ grew up in a safe environment. She never broke a bone. She was never abused physically, though she was bullied. She never knew the pain of abandonment, or destitution. She never knew war, at least in her childhood. 

Her family loved her, and she loved them securely, without fail and without doubt. She was well educated. She ate three times per day and could walk everywhere she needed to go. She had a very small group of close friends like sisters whom she had known since she was a baby. Yes, she had to deal with the discomforts and pain of bullying, but she was, all in all, safe from harm.

Isra’ never really thought about the concept of survival. Children never think about such things. Those for whom safety is a guarantee may not even think of it as adults.

As a teenager, Isra’ knew she was specifically sensitive about her height. Her height, and the feelings it generated, was her weakness in an otherwise thick armor. No one else saw her cry about it. No one else saw her constant criticisms, her longings to look different. Shy and stoic was how others saw her, a high tower, isolated, with walls of carefully placed stones.

Of course, it is difficult for Isra’ to pinpoint exactly how, why, or when she became this way. Why she was so sensitive about her height. Why her heart beat faster in response to insults about her height, but little else.

For Isra’, like most of us, she wished she were different—she wished she were shorter. She wished she were stronger. She wished day and night to actually be the strong being others seemed to see with such clarity. To her, that tower was invisible, or, at best, thickly veiled by clouds. 

Where others saw strength, Isra’ saw weakness. Where others saw a thick skin, Isra’ constantly worried that her sensitivity was exposed bare.

While she may not remember, so much of Isra’s shyness started when she was just a little girl, about eight years old, in second grade. In the second grade was the first time someone made fun of her height. 

The incident was ordinary, not dramatic, not the type of thing Isra’ would usually remember. Yet, that  one banal event set off a chain reaction that profoundly shaped Isra’s internal emotional life. An incident all but forgotten was the seed of deeply rooted patterns fundamental to Isra’s way of engaging with the world.  

It was in the early morning, soon after she had walked into the classroom with its wooden chairs and peeling walls. The classroom was the color of the soap her mother always bought—a sundried, greenish yellow. It reminded her of olive oil as it comes out of the press. She remembers the classroom clearly. The teacher, underqualified but eager, was kind but a little bit sad most of the time.

Isra’ had just begun to take out her notebooks for the first class, when she heard a girl across the room whisper to another girl, “Look at her. She’s too tall. Like a flagpole.”

Isra’ turned around. The girls were clearly talking about her. 

Isra’s heart beat faster. 

Like a flagpole—strong, unfazed by the elements, respected, but never attractive.

The girls were not saying anything Isra’ did not know. Isra’ ignored them, paying attention to her teacher instead. But those words whispered from across the room sat stewing in Isra’s mind for minutes, passively taking up space and energy in her mind while she tried to focus on class.

By the end of the day, Isra’ thought she had put the incident behind her.

But food on low heat nonetheless cooks. And those words, unnoticed, carved out space in her heart. They meant something, they felt a certain way, even as Isra’s immediate attention had moved on.

Those words. Too tall. They took up space in Isra’s mind.

The next morning, Isra’ sat in the same seat. She opened her notebook. Without intention or awareness, she shifted slightly to the left in her chair, tilting her head in the direction where those two girls had been sitting the day before. Without thinking, Isra’ was searching for those words again, tuning in close to hear if those girls were still interested in her height or had moved on to more exciting news.

Isra’ listened closely. But, for a long minute, the girls said nothing. Isra’ was relieved. About to move on and focus again on the lesson in front of her, Isra’ looked back, to check if the girls had even showed up at school. 

As Isra’ looked back, for a second, one of the girls locked eyes with Isra’ from across the room. She signaled to her friend, pointed at Isra’, and giggled quietly.

No words at all, yet Isra’s heart began to race. As the girls chuckled to themselves, Isra’ felt a sharp pain in her chest, as if someone had hit her. Her mind raced; her heart beat faster than usual. She felt her hands get tight, like she was making a fist. She felt awful; she felt angry.

She tried to forget. The thought wouldn’t move. The feeling wouldn’t go away. And that was perhaps the first time Isra’ felt insecure, insecure in her own skin, in who she was.

As she had done the day before, she tried to shove those bubbling feelings down. She breathed deeply, closed her eyes tight for a second, turned towards the teacher, opened her eyes, and breathed out. The feeling in her chest subsided slightly.

Forget it. Forget them. She thought harder this time.

Her grip softened on her pencil. Her thoughts slowed. Her heart gentled itself back to a normal beat. She focused on the teacher. 

Too tall. The words bounced around in her head, until she took a few more breaths. She tried to focus on the teacher, but she felt herself drawn back into her own mind, replaying the soft yet bruising laughter she heard across the room.

Too tall. 

There in her mind, trying to be ignored, that laugh from across the room and the words from the day before sat stewing together. They grew bigger. And at eight years old, Isra’ had no idea just how much those words, those feelings, would carve deep patterns in her thoughts and her very sense of self.