We are at our most fragile when we are surprised. In that moment, our adrenal glands kick in and inject a dose of adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) into our circulatory system and we are a little more ready to make a decision: (1) run, (2) fight, or (3) calm back down and laugh it off (failing this, tell your surprise visitor not to do THAT again!).
In that moment, we are afraid. Our body expresses fear. Muscles tighten, pupils dilate, the heart beats speed up, jaws clench, blood moves faster. All of this in spite of overwhelming evidence that we are in a safe environment surrounded by people and objects we understand are not going to harm us. Our mind rushes in to assess and decides whether it was a false alarm or an alarming problem.
The odd thing about our minds is that a lot of us live in unacceptable circumstances—in communities or nations that have an irrational fear of us (and we of them), with parents who have never accepted the enormous responsibility of raising children, with friends and/or acquaintances who are making “poor life choices” (as the saying goes—there are less euphemistic ways of saying this), with a “partner” (from Latin for “a sharing”) or “spouse” (from the Latin “to bind oneself through a solemn promise”) who is neither. Because these are chronic circumstances we become accustomed to them and do not run (or fight, but running is probably the smarter choice anyway). We are numb to what should be surprising. If something surprising actually does occur (a fit of violence, a denigrating or abusive phrase, a self-destructive spiral), we do nothing… unless it is so incredibly bad that our minds finally kick in and we embrace a change, we go in search of freedom.
The irony of these situations is that (1) our bodies respond to the momentary surprise that poses no threat and (2) our minds shut down when we’ve become accustomed to constant danger, continuous insult, and injury. This is not ironic in any hipster way. It is ironic in an often life-threatening—and at the very least, mental health-threatening—way. Another way of saying this is that we are most fragile when we have done the least to correct the problem.
If I knew how to solve this all-too-common conundrum, it would be great. But I don’t.
Every one of you does, though.
Our minds (if not our mouths, our voices) scream it at the screen every time we see someone do something dumb in a horror or suspense film: “Don’t go in there!” or “Get out of there!” or “Don’t trust them!” or simply “RUN!” Has anyone ever screamed “get in there, it’s bluffing!” or “that giant machete is just for weed whacking!” except in jest?
And yet we—and those dumb screen characters—do go in, don’t get out, do trust them and/or (usually all of the above) stand there like vertical corpses waiting for the meat wagons to arrive.
The cure, of course, is to know yourself. I googled “know yourself quotes” as I begun this offering and chose the Brainy Quotes site to cite some wisdom (ah, English homonyms! your mysteries confound generations of ELL students, both native and immigrant!). To be honest, why should you believe a thing I’ve said, particularly when so many have said it before me and have become famous for being worthy of a Brainy Quote citation?
“Only as you do know yourself can your brain serve you as a sharp and efficient tool. Know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so you can separate them from what you see.” Bernard Baruch (1879-1965)
Baruch was an influential advisor to many U.S. Presidents; this pattern started in 1916 during World War I and continued through the Great Depression and World II. His influence diminished during President Truman’s administration.
It is the “know your own failings, passions, and prejudices so your can separate them from what you see” that I particularly like. From my point of view, understanding your own strengths, weaknesses, loves, and biases, coming to terms with what really makes you the person you are is (1) the most difficult job you will ever have and (2) you are the only person who can do it. It does prod you along to have help from an excellent professional counselor but the work of knowing yourself is all yours to dig through and discover. I emphasize “professional counselor” because it is their only job to listen to you and tease your own views out of the morass of fuzzy wonderings that typically cloud all of our minds. The brightest writer, the most insightful mathematician, social scientist, teacher, or student can all have significant blind spots when it comes to why they do what they do. Your friends are going to tell you what you want to hear or what their morass of fuzziness programs them to say. Your parents? The same. Your boss? Well, that’s easy—they REALLY don’t want to hear about the chutes and ladders of your inner dreams! Your spiritual leader may or may not give you good advice; hardly a week goes by without a story about some “shepherd of souls” who has fleeced their flock of funds, run off with a congregant’s spouse, or suffered the little children. Counselors do this mess too but you are paying them to behave in an ethical manner and they have liability insurance if they violate their code of behavior by violating your trust.
Thales, another of the earliest Greek philosophers and scientists, dropped this wisdom sometime around 600 B.C.E.:
“The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.”
Would Thales be surprised if he popped in and checked us out? Still found us floundering around like a swarm of protozoans in a drop of pond water? Somehow, I think he’d just nod and go back to sleep. He knew it was difficult and it still is!
Here’s a couple more, this time from a philosopher and spiritual leader who emerged from the Hindu belief system, although he took a detour in his early life:
“The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality or whatever you like to call it, can never be answered by books, by priests, philosophers, or saviours. Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself, and that is why you must know yourself – Immaturity lies only in total ignorance of self.” Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895-1986)
“In obedience there is always fear, and fear darkens the mind.“
In this second quote, we’re back to the topic that I raised initially—fear. In the initial case, it was the autonomic fear that comes from being startled, surprised, shocked by some momentary touch. At those moments, we fear what might come next… then nothing does (usually). When we enter those lethargic, depressed, paralyzed states that come from constant danger, we have embraced fear as a friend and it no longer has its critical effect. In those moments, though, we have negated everything we know about ourselves, anything we have ever learned through introspection and/or counseling (which leads to introspection). We have become a shadow self with limited features, an outline of our head, shoulders, torso, arms, and legs, but nothing of the enormous knowledge that lies within that silhouette. If we come to know ourselves, we can all do an improved job of seeing the dangers as they approach, we can turn around and go back the way we came and start our journey again.
We do not NEED to be shocked into survival. We are always vulnerable, which can be good, but not if vulnerability results in our diminishment, not if the fragility that can accompany vulnerability and self-knowledge endangers us.
It is best, then, to face ourselves, to look at what we do well and what we do poorly. It is okay to have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. We all do, every single human being on earth, however they portray themselves. The key is to come to as clear-minded an understanding of ourselves as humanly possible, then don’t do things that expose your fragilities to your bêtes noires, your nemeses. Be fragile in your truth but not to them.