War, Part 3: At War with Others

To me, the world is a magical place, full of wonder.
It’s not a belief, exactly.
It’s a feeling.

Certain objects seem more wondrous than others, and show up frequently in stories about magical worlds.

Take mirrors, for example.
It’s strange to see yourself from the outside in.
One of the reasons that it seems so strange to look at yourself in a mirror is that the mirror seems to capture you.
It seems to confine you to a tiny spot in time and space.
But inside, you still feel open and limitless, like a great ocean.

There are countless mirrors in my life, although they are not made of glass and wood and metal.
And these mirrors reflect what lies deep within me, not merely my skin and clothing.

Every experience, every possession, every person we meet shows us what lies inside of you and me.

Do you know what moves you?
Do you know what scares you, angers you, bores you, excites you?

Each us have some answers to these questions, with a mixture of truth and lies.
The way we act, and react to life’s challenges, and the way we deal with life’s quiet moments, provide a more complete answer to these questions.

As I’ve said in previous posts, our inner world is full of contradiction – conflicting desires and little “me”s, and competing stories that color everything we see.

It’s no surprise then, that the way we act is full of contradictions.
And, it’s no surprise that our experience of the world is full of contradictions.
Much of the time, our relationships with the people around us, exhibit the disorder that lies within us, that we pretend not to see.

We strike out at the mirror, not realizing that we are facing our own reflection.
If we are at war with ourselves, we will be at war with others, finding threats and danger in the world around us.

Dangers, Threats, and Challenges
I’m a typical parent. I have a strong desire to protect my children from danger.

But where are the dangers in life?
Which are real, and which are wildly exaggerated, or totally made up?

Most parents, intentionally or not, teach their children that the world is a dangerous place

  • weather
  • sickness
  • strangers
  • accidents

Fortunately, children are natural risk takers and this helps to counter the constant stream of warnings.

But only for a while.
Eventually we grow up, and many of us internalize this story of the world as a dangerous enemy.

The source of this is not simply in our thoughts and feelings.
It starts much deeper in the parts of the brain that we share with other Mammals.
Mammals have 3 hard-wired responses to danger:

  • Fight: eliminate the danger
  • Flight: avoid the danger
  • Freeze: pretend to be dead, slow down the body to dull our experience of the pain and trauma (if we’re attacked), and flee/attack if we find a last minute chance to do so. If an animal survives such a situation, the animal has a way of releasing the experience. Unfortunately in human beings, being helpless, traumatized, frozen is not readily released when the experience is over.

(The freeze response is well documented, and has profound consequences for people who have suffered traumatic experiences. Yet, it’s unfamiliar to most people. I’ve discussed it in more detail in Getting Unstuck: Fear on Ice.)

The three responses are animal responses to real, physical danger.

Inner and Outer Dangers
What happens when we see psychological challenges, and verbal disagreements as dangers?

There are 3 common responses.

  • Attack (fight): eliminate the danger
  • Avoid (flight): avoid the danger
  • Accommodate (give-in, give-up, ambush): we may give in to the source of the danger completely, or it may be a temporary strategy (like playing dead) which may followed by a later attack or escape from the situation

These responses are a natural consequence of the initial perception of a challenge or disagreement as a danger.

How have so many of us come to a point where every disagreement or challenge becomes a danger?

Many people have a long history of feeling unfulfilled and empty, of being disconnected from their own unique greatness, of being mentally and emotionally imprisoned in the beliefs and demands of others. We carry this burden around with us, buried beneath the surface. It takes only a small opening to release the hidden, explosive force.

For some people, sadly, just speaking to strangers can be a difficult and unpleasant experience, as every stranger becomes a danger.

A Fourth Response

If your challenges to me, and our disagreements are not a threat, what are they?

Challenges are an opportunity to change and grow.
Do you ever seek the quiet of comfortable and predictable situations and people, even though it’s a form of “sleep”?

Challenges wake us up, and give us the opportunity to rethink our priorities, and listen to our dreams. (Strange dreams, indeed, that we can only see after we awaken a little)

Challenges give us the opportunity to look at things in a new way, and create a new, more powerful way of understanding the world. We become able to see a new world of possibility, looking through the eyes of another person.

Challenges give us a moment where we can step out of the stories that we’re telling about our life, and rewrite our stories.

Sometimes challenges offer us a different opportunity.
A chance to reaffirm what is deeply important to us and say “No.”

See Power of a Positive No, by William Ury for an excellent discussion of the three responses, and an alternative which he refers to as the Positive No.

It’s strange.
Sometimes we fight with other people over nothing.
Other times, we give in, even though we betray our sense of what’s important.

It’s possible to disagree with others without attacking them.
And, it’s possible to agree with others without abandoning what is truly important to me.

A Positive No does not attack or avoid the perspective and humanity of the other person. It is a No which respects the other person, explains why my position is critical to me, and tries to find common ground which respects what is most important to each of us. And where no solution can be found, the Positive No remains a clear, solid, respectful No.

Inner War<< Previous in Series                    
  1. War, Part 1: At War with Myself
  2. War, Part 2: The Story of You and the Lies You Tell
  3. War, Part 3: At War with Others

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