Fight, Flight, or Friendship

Children are sometimes the best models of what it means to be human. They say what’s on their minds. They mimic the silly and embarrassing habits that you have. Kids simply do what they feel and that really exposes the core of our humanness that we spent much of our adult lives hiding.

The transparency of children can give us insight into how humans naturally respond to things like stress. Anyone with kids can tell you that they cry, a lot. Ever since that first moment leaving the womb screaming for dear life up until they learn to fend for themselves, children cry when under distress and for good reason. Most primate children are born very early in development and have no ability to protect themselves. They depend on their parents to do so. Humans, being primates ourselves, are born dependent. We need others in order to survive. It is in our nature.

So, why is it that we teach our children that sadness is a weakness?

There has been this pervasive idea of what humans do when confronted with imminent danger. Fight or flight. It dates back to Walter Bradford Cannon, an American psychologist who noted the behavioural and physiological response of animals in danger. The hunker down and fight or flee to safety. It is triggered by the autonomic nervous system, which, as the name implies, switches on automatically under stress. It jolts us into a frenzy by releasing a rush of hormones the prepare us for action. It is the same system that comes into play when we get sexually aroused. And some animals (including humans) freeze instead of run. So, the term has become extended over the years to be the 4F’s: fight, flight, freeze, and fuck.

The idea of fight or flight has been so strongly rooted in our societies likely because of the barbaric nature of early human relations. Up until the past century, most of human history has been about colonization of territory. Tribes, villages, nations all fought for thousands of years for land. This contest fueled by military power has cemented the idea of strength as a sought after trait. Those who ran would eventually run out of places to go, especially once there was no more land unclaimed. Instead they would attempt to take new territory by force through the means of war. The strong would win. The weak would become subjugated and assimilated. This is a history that we still live through today.

Even within the relatively safe confounds of first world societies we are still plagued with war. War on drugs. Gang wars. Gender equality. Sexual freedom. Religious freedom. And the countless economic wars being fought everyday. What was once physical territory are now market territory. Those who fight will become the victors.

What if we value all of this fighting simply because we try so hard to eliminate the one response to stress that brings people together?

In the summer of 2015, Pixar release a film called Inside Out. It depicted the emotions of a young girl as colourful characters inside her head controlling her behaviour. Joy was a bubbly fairy that loved to have fun. Sadness was an unmotivated blue lump. Whenever Sadness got in the way it would get shoved aside because it was disrupting all the fun. It was, in a sense, an emotional war between the two. The two end up getting lost, away from the central controls leaving the remaining emotions of Anger, Fear, and Disgust to take over. Spoiler. At the end Joy finally realized that the joyous memories she cherished so dearly were actually because of sadness. When the girl was able to express her sadness it prompted her parents to pick her up and allow her to experience joy again.

The modern world we live in still tries its best to suppress and ignore the exact feelings that bring us closer together. When we feel overwhelmed at school, or at work we are expected to maintain composure, “stay professional” and power through. Those that ask for help are considered weak and unreliable. Because of that, so many of us are forced to wallow in our sadness until it becomes a debilitating depression. Yet, if we took a single moment to tend to the distress of our students, our co-workers, our family and friends, they we can help pick them up and allow them to experience the joy of school and work again.

There is this cruelty in our society when we try so hard to crush the feelings of sadness and dispel them from our children. We teach one another that the world is a cruel place. That there is no sympathy out there in the “real world”. Sadness has become the most inhumane taboo of our time.

From the moment we are born into this world, the only real truth we learn is whether or not someone will tend to our cries. Our need for connection is a core part of what it means to be human. When we force ourselves to push our sadness aside all we end up with is the meaningless joy of addiction and the endless pursuit of war. Fight or flight are not our only options. We can choose friendship.

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