“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
“Love never fails. . .”
~~I Corinthians 13
“The awakening is
word after word.”
“A dojo is a miniature cosmos where we make contact with ourselves—our fears, anxieties, reactions, and habits. It is an arena of confined conflict where we confront an opponent who is not an opponent but rather a partner engaged in helping us understand ourselves more fully.”
After working with a group in conflict, a participant comes to me adamantly opposed to something I say, or at least something he interprets that I say. He seems angry, accusatory and irrational; there is no space for conversation. Something in me is saying, “Take flight, run away, don’t stay and listen to this.”
At times, we as ministers want to run away. It is the flight part of the fight, flight or freeze deeply ingrained in our bodies and our past. It is our protection, an evolutionary momentum and a biological memory deep in the human body that allowed our ancestors to survive to another day and bequeath to us, generations later, this day.
What is the instinct to run away, to flee, to take flight? Does it serve a purpose? If so, what is its purpose? This essay offers musings about taking flight as a human reaction to threatening situations, real or imagined.
Our brains are wired to process incoming information through the amygdala, which puts information through a test for threats and opportunities. Once a circumstance is identified as threatening, real or imagined, the fight, flight or freeze reaction is triggered. All kinds of physiological responses engage, which cause a plethora of physiological and psychological reactions throughout the body. Because this musing is specifically on flight, we will leave pondering the other reactions for another article.
To want to run away is an essence of being human. It transforms any staying through the transfigurations of choice. To think about fleeing from circumstances, from a conflict, marriage, relationship, work, a ministry or congregation is part of the conversation itself and helps us understand the true distilled nature of our own reluctance.
In some congregations, I see both parishioners and clergy want to run away. Some heed to the instinct, others take a breath and move to another place within while staying where they are. We all have default reactions to stress/anxiety. Flight or running away can be one of those reactions as can fight and freeze. Becoming clear about our default reactions is essential inner work if we are to be effective leaders.
In martial arts during kumite (sparring), when a partner or opponent attacks, the instinct is to withdraw or back away. As one gets to higher levels in the art, one learns at times, it is an appropriate strategy to get distance, but at other times it is better to do what my Sensei calls “attack the attack” or move into it. An important way of being in the art is to be fully present and focused, where one is without distraction. As a result, the trained instinct knows when to instruct the body to back away and when to move into another’s attach and redirect the energy. It is about harmony of the inner and outer. In a split second after years of training, the body knows what it needs to do in those instances apart from our thoughts to yield the best outcome. If one has to think about what to do, it is too late. One simply has to trust the body and trained instincts to know; thus, presence, focus, positive training, repetition, conditioning and response, in contrast to fear, lack of focus and the reptilian reactions, drive one’s response.
I can imagine Jesus in more than one instance of his life wanting to run, wanting to hide, wanting it all to go away. In the garden praying, Jesus says, “let this cup pass.” I wonder if in this prayer Jesus’ is struggling with his desire to run, not to be where he is and his uncertainty about how to be present in such a difficult situation? In this context Jesus faces an existential question calling for a choice. Sometimes love means to flee; sometimes it means to stand where we are. For Jesus, it is an invitation. Making responsible choices and taking responsibility for those choices is central to being fully human. Jesus is no stranger to this struggle. As the poet comments, “Sometimes, our God is a simple, gentle invitation, not a telling word of wisdom.” In this context, Jesus knows that running is not the responsible choice. God is a gentle, simple invitation. This cup cannot pass. Jesus accepts the difficult but necessary bitter path of pain.
Strangely, we are perhaps most fully incarnated as humans when part of us does not want to be here, or doesn’t know how to be here. Presence is only fully understood and realized through fully understanding our reluctance to show up. To understand the part of us that wants nothing to do with the full necessities of work, of relationship, of ministry, of doing what is necessary, is to learn humility, to cultivate self-compassion and to sharpen that sense of humor essential to a merciful perspective of a self or another.
Wanting to run is necessary. Actually running can save our lives at crucial times, but it can also be extremely dangerous and unwise, especially in the presence of animals that are bigger, faster and more agile than we are; especially when the very act of running triggers an aggressive predatory response, or when running exiles us from the very circumstances that were about to mature and cultivate our character.
In the wild, the best response to dangerous circumstances is often not to run but to assume a profoundly attentive identity, to pay attention to what seems to threaten and in that attention, not to assume the identity of the victim.
Through being equal to fierce circumstances, we make ourselves larger than the part of us that wants to flee while not losing its protective understandings about when it might be appropriate. Besides, there is rarely one discrete identity who needs to run. We have many different constituencies inside and out. We are not only protectors of a multi-layered self but also of our family and community, of our children, of those who are infirm, or temporarily incapacitated, or who simply have the wrong perspective.
We decide not to run not only because there are many who would be left behind who cannot run as fast as we can, but also because in turning to the source of the fear we have the possibility of finding a different way forward, a larger good. By turning toward, we move through circumstances, rather than away from them and move toward some supposedly safe area where threats no longer occur or at least no longer have power over us.
We know intuitively that most of the time we should not run. We should stay and look for a different way forward and deeper into. Despite the evolutionary necessity, rarely is it good to run away. We are wiser, more present, more mature, more understanding when we realize that we can never flee from the feeling of the need to run away, but we do not have to act on it when it is a default reaction.
Running, fleeing, walking away,
closing our eyes as if it will go away if we do not see,
the first instinct, the reptilian engagement,
growing out of fear and anxiety.
In time, through exercise and practice,
we find other ways,
other repertoires of response
in the face of fear.
We learn to pause,
to think and trust the wisdom of the body,
the insight of the soul,
the fierce strength of the inner world,
who guides us to the confidence we need to know how to be present, how to be still or pause,
how to respond.
Breath is the less instinctual, courageous way,
the invitation for creative response,
that blows over the surface of chaos stirring the waters.
Out of it, our life of gentle, fierce presence and response surfaces.
In time, we find what frightens us to be our teacher,
not wanting to do us harm,
but protecting us,
trying to find her own way;
inviting us to find this other in ourselves
who was there all along,
inviting her out to play.
God be with us
in both our responses and reactions
our choices to be present,
our decisions to pause,
our reactions to run, short breathed and hide!
Teach us to be and not to be;
Help us to have a relationship with the ground on which we stand, unknown,
and the mysterious horizons to which our eyes cast,
out of which our self ripens,
like a fine wine.
Come as a gentle, simple invitation.
Agree or disagree, you are invited into the conversation!
Conversation, however, takes time. We need time to sit together, to listen, to worry and dream together. As this age of turmoil tears us apart, we need to reclaim time to be together. Otherwise, we cannot stop the fragmentation.