On the Gentle Art #14

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What are you afraid of? Are you scared of things that go bump in the night? Monsters? Demons? Serial-killers? Clowns? Serial-killer clowns? Or worst of all, spiders? Maybe you are the type of person who is scared by the more mundane: heights, water, flying, subway travel, or mystery meat school lunches? (I always stuck with the PB&J myself. I didn’t trust the Soylent Green Sloppy Joes. Badly behaved kids had a strange way of disappearing. They said to the “alternative school”, but I never trusted them either.)

Me, I’m scared of a lot of things. I don’t trust people who say that they aren’t. You see to fear is human, and we run away from scary shit. (We’d like to think otherwise, but most of us will not so much poetically leap off this mortal coil, as plop in a puddle of pee yelling, “Oh shit!” as our last words.)

Imagine if you will, a small, hairy, female Hominid walking through the tall grass of the African Savanna a long time ago. (I’m talking way before Uber.) She’s out doing what Hominids do; scavenging and foraging when suddenly she hears a rustle in the grass. Her ears prick up. Her hair stands on end, and she pauses, but the sound is gone. She shrugs her shoulders, puts her head down, and continues to forage. The last thing she sees is a fury of fangs and claws.

Now imagine the same scenario, but now she freezes, paralyzed by the fear of the terrible unknown that will come for her. Within moments it does. And now imagine a third scenario. Our little heroine is walking along when suddenly she hears a rustle in the grass. Her ears prick up. Her skin crawls. Her hair stands on end. She’s terrified. She scans the grass looking for a way out. Her vision sharpened by a dump of adrenaline, she sees a rocky outcrop, and immediately dashes in full anaerobic sprint toward it. Death is gaining on her with every pounding step, claws trim the short hairs that are standing on end at the nape of her neck. She jumps into a tight crevice at the final moment between this life and the next. Fangs and claws search wildly for her, but she is safe here. Her fear, in the right dose, has saved her. Before night falls, she eases her way out of her rocky tomb. She scampers quickly back to her group carrying her story of survival and a recently implanted embryo that will benefit from his mother’s exploits this day.

Fast forward to today where savannas have been replaced by cubicles, and foraging miles for food is reduced to the ten steps you take too many times a day to the vending machine. (And yes there’s Uber.) We live in a rather comfy world where we don’t have to fear big cats jacking us on our way to the supermarket or 7-Eleven. A world where we can live year round at 72 degrees of climate controlled bliss surrounded by the steady hum of fluorescent lighting and electronics.  A world that is ergonomically designed to kill us in the least scary and most insidious ways. (Death by chair they say.)

How can this comfortable world kill us you ask? Well no matter how comfortable we are, we are creatures born of fear. Remember our great grandmother many times removed who survived that day? She survived because of the fear that charged her adrenal glands into overdrive and prompted her stress response to flee. She passed this trait to her children and they through generations to us. Though fear was beneficial to our species’ survival back then it is less so now. Our fear of ravenous creatures is now relegated to fairy tales and dreams.

We’ve replaced the ancient monsters with our bosses who we fear will catch us leaving the cubicle, with not having the same social media status updates as our “friends”, with not having the cool clothes or shoes, with fearing that the world depends on us to know the latest news updates which we check incessantly throughout the day. Though all different, these fears share the common theme that they are no more real than the monsters of our fairy tales and dreams. We however, give these fears life by succumbing to them, but because they are amorphous we cannot fight or flee from them. They are everywhere and nowhere at all times, and we suffer for it.

You see our bodies don’t know the difference between that ancient big cat predator, and our fear of our boss, social status, etc. It responds to each in the same way by hijacking our sympathetic nervous system. When a stressor activates the hypothalamus (stress command center in our brain) it sends signals to our adrenal glands to secrete adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies. And though this helps you run from a predator for a short while, it is useless against that overbearing boss of yours. (You could run from her, but that’d be weird. You could fight her, but that would ruin your chances at making employee of the month even though everyone knows your spreadsheets are on fleek! Fuck Jill from accounting and the rest of them haters!) So while your body is in this heightened state of fear response, you have no natural recourse. You are stuck in this constant state of fear and are forced to endure it.

So what do we do to save ourselves from ourselves? You could take up yoga or meditation to combat the fear and stress, but to me there is something unsatisfying about fighting an ethereal enemy in an intangible way. Perhaps we have to reanimate our dormant bodies by bringing them into an immediate struggle where you are responding to an active threat, where adrenaline and cortisol are welcomed by your blood and muscles to help you fend off an attacker, where for a span of 6 to 10 minutes you are pitted in a simulated life or death struggle, where you can die multiple times and be reborn after each? And most glorious of all is that it ends.

Your body’s parasympathetic nervous system can finally turn on and bring your body back into homeostatic balance. It’s the release that is denied to us in this comfortable, soft world. It’s the release that never comes at your work where you’re under stress for 8, 10, 12 hours or more a day. And after each encounter, you struggle for breath and smile because you survived.

(c) J. Manuel

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