I posted this about five months ago, I think. In light of the protests and the fear that ensues across the country, I’m posting it again, in hopes that we all can become more aware of where we as a country and as individuals are in our brains, think about why we are there, and work our way into another area of the brain that is less fearful or reactive. What we can assume, I think, is that no matter the outcome of the election, half of our country would be afraid and likely be protesting – And the other half would think that their fear was irrational. I think if we can begin to hear each other’s fears and not dismiss them as unimportant, but really hear and come to understand what it is we are so afraid of, maybe we can slowly come to a deeper understanding that we are not so divided after all. We must start seeing each other.
I have not written in a while. I have constructed a lot of sentences and ideas in my mind. I have started to sit down and write a thought or two, only to be stopped with the belief that there are so many words flying around us lately – so many people trying to shout louder, arguing why they are right and someone else is wrong, we have simply stopped listening to each other. – So why write?
We have become a highly reactive society. We do not listen, we only defend. We are ready for a fight, or we are ready to fly. We are full of hatred and fear. We are certain, unequivocally that we are right and that those other people are not only wrong, but clearly deranged, because how can anybody be so stupid as to believe what they do?
We sling words around like, “stupid,” “hate,” “kill her,” “fascist,” “racist,” “criminal,” and we find a toxic pleasure hating a person we do not know. We have somehow crossed over a line, that we should have never crossed. We have not held the barre of civility in the press and among each other. We have regressed into a teenager mentality in which our basic arguments are: “Well, he got away with it, so why can’t I?” We defend actions we know are fundamentally wrong, but we are too prideful to admit that people make mistakes. We are on edge and are terrified of what is happening in our world, as veterans kill police officers – has the world gone mad? As dance clubs are pillaged – has the world gone mad? As first graders are gunned down in their classrooms, and we do nothing – has the world gone mad? No wonder we are afraid! No wonder we are angry! No wonder are ready for a fight, or ready to fly!
We have become a country of reptilians.
There is a theory that was developed by brain scientist named Paul Maclean called the Triun Brain. The idea is that the the brain is divided into three parts:
- The Neocortex.
- The Limbic
- The Reptilian
Maclean argued that ‘when anxiety reaches certain thresholds the instinctual, reptilian systems can take over the other set of controls and override the steering of the cortex’, even though the cortex still believes that it is in control (121). ‘Madness has more to do with how people function in a relationship system than with products of their intellect.’
When we reside in the reptilian brain, we are unable to reason, imagine, listen, or be relational. We become interested in one thing, and one thing only and is survival. We regress to the reptile.
Psychologist Ed Friedman gives three key symptoms of this emotional regression (which he associates with the supposed ‘reptilian brain’): 1) interfering in other’s relationships; 2) unceasing attempts to convert people to their position; 3) an inability to relate to people who differ with them.
When I think of the reptilian brain, I am reminded of parenting classes I have taken on getting through the preschool years and the adolescent years. Both of these stages are times when the brain is growing and maturing. As a result, temper tantrums perk up – fear of parents leaving the house, being hungry, tired, not getting a toy, all result in a three year old falling on the ground in a rage. And for the 13 year old, being impulsive, emotionally reactive, isolated, and hyper sensitive are all the joys of the new teenager brain. As parents, our goal is to not join them there. It does a three-year-old no favors, if we join them on the floor in their temper tantrum. It does a thirteen-year-old no favors if we join them in a screaming match. We as parents have to stay mature, non anxious, humorous, measured and non emotional. Being non emotional does not mean not caring, it means having a measured response, it means reminding the three year old that they are safe and loved. It means not becoming another reptile.
I believe we have become a nation of reptiles. We have lost our ability to self-differentiate. We have allowed the temper tantrums on social media and on the television screen to get into our psyche and we have lost the ability to stay measured, calm and non emotional. We have followed the crowd, just as Harold Hill said we would in Music Man when he told the townspeople to be afraid of the game of pool – we have become a nation of fear.
We are afraid of others. We are afraid of Donald Trump. We are afraid of Hilary Clinton. We are afraid the NRA. We are afraid of Liberals. We are afraid of Conservatives. We are afraid of Muslims. We are afraid of Christians. We are afraid of African Americans. We are afraid of white people. We are afraid of police officers. We are afraid of what is going to happen to our country come November. We are drowning in fear.
If we are going to lead ourselves out of this as a nation, we have to remember that we are mammals. We have to collectively move out of the group think of fear, into a new way of thinking. We have to invoke in our society a maturity that calls for calm, measured responses. We must tell those who cast out fear, hatred, and highly emotional language, that they need a time out, that their outbursts will not be tolerated, that this is not how we behave in public, or around the table, and we know that we can be better than this. We know that we can listen to each other without being defensive, unkind, or rude. We know that we can listen first and then listen again. We know that we can treat all people with the same measure of common decency. We know that hatred begets hatred and evil begets evil. We know this. We know how to be better people. We cannot depend on our leaders or the media to teach us how to be grown ups. We have to do that ourselves.
Let’s do it. Let’s be better.