The fight or flight response, that section of our biological expression that leaps into action to deal with a perceived threats is mirrored in many behavioral systems throughout the biological body of life. From the heat shock proteins that leap into defense activities within a cell that perceives threat, to the immune system which leaps into action when it sees a potentially harmful agent. The heartbeat of biology are systems built on collections of nourishing relationships that also have the capacity to defend that nourishing community against antagonists.
The article below is an example of how the brain of a stickleback fish produces alterations in gene expression up to two hours after it interacts with an intruder. This illustration of the way the brain attends to perceived threat is also an illustration of what the emotionally powerful events like the unknown and the traumatic do to affect our own experience of life. It may explain why they are so effective at etching themselves into a prominent place in the lens through which we see ourselves and the world from that defining event, forward – and why these seeds of identity can be a source of wisdom to help us navigate future hazards more effectively, or become a source of cyclic torture if they are not calibrated to be proportional to the current events we will encounter. In other words, we can become prisoners of episodes from our past because of the powerful way they can shape what we see from that point forward.
Today’s wake up word is Myelin: It is a fatty insulator that surrounds the axon of some kinds of nerve cells allowing signals to pass through preferentially over those channels. When we learn motor skills like an instrument, our body responds by mylenating certain channels to make that happen easier over time. This is why we become competent at tasks. Myelin is essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system. Myelin is the reason habits form (including what we call our identity and character in many respects) and why patterns of behavior are harder to break once established whether in an individual or a culture, and why these rituals may serve us or imprison us depending on how they are wired and how that wiring serves to help us navigate the variables of our environment.
The whole world starts the lens through which we see it. Charles Swindoll once said; “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it.” Some of us look for happiness on the outside, some expectation we overlay on our world. While the outside is of some consequence, it it the inside that shapes most of what we see and experience. The same way a seedling must first develop in the darkness of the soil before developing the strength to show itself to the rest of the world, the soil from which our public identity emerges largely determines what we experience. Happiness is an inside-out journey.
There is a fungus that infects ants and manipulates their thought and behavior patterns.1 Infected ants are rewired by the fungus to change their basic behavioral nature. The rewiring shifts the ants behavior from a role that supports the sustainability of the ant community they depend on for life to instead devote their lives to ideas planted in their head by the fungus. They are now compelled to go on a journey into the forest in search of a place that best serves the purposes of the fungus.
The fungus overlord that has taken over the life of the ant drives them to find a spot suited perfectly to itself under a leaf at an appropriate level off the forest floor. The ant is then driven to attach itself to a major vein on the underside of that leaf where it starves and dies as it is slowly devoured by the fungus it served and sacrificed its life for. The fungus then pops a fruiting body out of the ants dead skull to litter the forest floor with more spores to spread itself to other ants.
The notions that we encounter in our lives that inform us who we are can be a powerful current that steers us much like the fungus steers the life of the ant. Some of these notions come from the inside – who we are without outside influences – what we might aspire or want to be. Some are from the outside – roles that others have planted into us by virtue of whatever prejudicial arrows they happen to carry in their behavioral quiver. Can we forge an intentional live in the midst of currents such as these? It can be difficult. Like the fungus, ideas installed from the outside in can seem like they are our own. Some of us hold ideas about money or other cultural institutions that we will sacrifice our lives for – not because we believe in them, but because we have been infected by them.
One of the necessary ingredients to forge an intentional life is a healthy bit of skepticism about the ideas we hold as our own. These things we think about our self – who we are – may be installed from the outside in, not born from the inside out. Sifting through the pile can be a difficult task. We develop momentum in terms of identity. What we become accustomed to thinking about ourselves becomes harder to see from a different perspective. The longer we hold on to ideas and behave as if these notions are our own, the more we see them as who we are.
Searching oneself honestly and then choosing to be aligned with being the person we choose to be, rather than quietly accepting the roles cast on us by social pressures can be quite a challenge. But it is a necessary one if we don’t want to to be driven to go where the cultural winds take us and end up under whatever leaf it decides is our fate. There is a Lebanese proverb that says; “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.” Each of us must decide if we’re going to be part of the caravan that moves on – making things happen, of one of the dogs that barks out commentary about those happenings.