Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fight or Flight

Well, I won't back down. 
No, I won't back down.
You can stand me up at the gates of hell.
But I won't back down.

---Tom Petty

Stand up for yourself. Don't let them roll over you. Don't back down. 

That fierce self-reliance, that determination not to be bullied, is deep inside us. Deep in our culture, our mythology, our DNA. In the Darwinian past, it was almost certainly an adaptive trait. Who knows today. Does it make us more likely to survive or to be the victim of road rage? Like the woman in Las Vegas the other day who, when harassed by another driver, took her daughter home, got her son (and his gun), and went looking for the bastard. She found him. He killed her.

The desire for revenge is the first cousin to the instinct to stand your ground. Instead of washing over you in a rush of adrenalin, it smolders inside you. Sometimes for a very long time. Years. Why is that? What good does it do? What good did it ever do? Maybe if, when we all lived in caves, you lay in wait for and disposed of the thug who beat you up some time ago, you saved yourself another beating. Nowadays circumstances are almost never like that. There is rarely someone lying in wait for us with murderous intent. We're just mad about some wrong--perhaps just a verbal slight--and we want to get even.

A lot has been written about how our base brains are the ones at the steering wheel, while our frontal lobes watch out the window and try to make sense of the scenery. We know this. We know that many of our atavistic instincts are maladapted to modern life. Yet we seem unable to kick that primitive, instinctive reactionary out of the driver's seat.

There is something inside us, some aspect of our self-image, that has been riding shotgun with that ancient driver so long we can't imagine anyone else at the wheel. If not him, who? And who would I be then? Caspar milquetoast. The skinny boy at the beach getting sand kicked in his face by the muscled hulk with a gorgeous woman on each arm?

The problem--the conscious problem, anyway, the one of which we are daily and painfully aware--isn't just our base-brain instincts, it's our self image. Every time we look in the emotional mirror, we see our weaknesses. We're certain others can sniff them out if we're not careful. We're certain we'll be abused if we don't stand our ground. Doormats, that's what well be. Who wants to be a doormat?

Is that what would happen? We're not fighting for food and mates the way we used to. Life (and gene propagation) is much less a zero sum game than it used to be. We don't have to take from one another. For most of us, there's plenty to go around. And yet we act like every slight must be redressed or we will perish.

What happens when a driver cuts you off and gives you the finger and you do nothing, you just slow down and let him go on his psychotic way? Your heart-rate spikes. You feel a little lightheaded. All that lasts about a minute, and then you start thinking again about what's for dinner. Versus maybe never making it home for dinner again.

Road rage is an easy illustration. It's quick and dramatic. Easy to get caught up in. Also pretty easy to pass up if you try. But what about the thousand cuts of daily life from people you can't avoid, people who won't drive on and be forgotten, people whose very presence daily remind you of the indignity, real or imagined, you have suffered at their hands? Must not they be dealt with?

Yes. But it is not they who must be confronted. It's that little fanatic in the driver's seat beside you. That primitive version of you. We are cruel to one another. Casually. Constantly. If you rise to the bait every time, if you let your un-evolved self pick your route, you'll spend most of your life going in the wrong direction.

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