Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Changing Instincts

I was recently approached online by a woman who wanted me to share her Facebook page. It’s called  Brittany's Message.

Curious, I went to her page. She talks about having a neurological condition that affects her muscle tone and speech. Brittany tells the story of having been in a local restaurant with a friend ordering food at the counter. Her friend ordered but the employee apparently could not understand Brittany and walked away.

She and her friend went to eat elsewhere, but the story doesn’t end there. Brittany wrote an honest and respectful letter about her disease and the incident itself. She took it back to the original restaurant where the employees read the letter and apologized. Brittany is adamant that she’s not looking for pity or sympathy. She’s trying to disseminate her message: “Everyone has a voice and deserves respect.”

My thoughts, my questions really more than thoughts, grew out of our discussion. They’re about instincts.

I don’t know Brittany, I can’t vouch for the veracity of her story. I’m a skeptical person in general but I do believe her. Either way, the truth of the matter is that a story does not have to be factual to inspire thought and discussion.

After reading her FB page, Brittany didn’t like my first reaction; “your page is heartbreaking and heartwarming.” She shot right back at me “why is it heartbreaking??”

I told her that it’s heartbreaking because in this day of so much awareness in terms of differences; be they physical, racial, sexual preference, religious . . . we still instinctively recoil from people who are different from us. I talk to my kids about bullying (I even wrote a post about it called I Apologize), about celebrating differences, striving to understand as opposed to giving in to fear of the unknown. I want the world to be a better place for them. I think they’ll do their part, but it hurts whenever I’m reminded that many others may not. After all, this is the environment in which my children will live.

She responded with tolerance: “many people just don’t know.”

I don’t accept that. I cant. SO much is available in terms of information. SO much out there about bullying, about acceptance, a virtual plethora of awareness. Especially with the internet, social media, blogs, etc. How can people not know?

But part of what’s heartbreaking to me has nothing to do with knowledge, it’s the other component, instinct.

We have instincts as a way to ensure survival. There are very basic ones; to procreate to continue the species, to drink when thirsty and eat when we’re hungry.


Bacon Cheddar Beef Rolls - Baking In A Tornado
Bacon Cheddar Beef Rolls

Bacon Cheddar Beef Rolls - Baking In A Tornado

Bacon Cheddar Beef Rolls
(going to the grill)

Fight or flight is a real and a purposeful instinct as well. It has years and years of evolution behind it. As I understand it, it’s a chemical reaction to fear and it’s steeped in self-preservation.

Fear is incredibly powerful. I believe that fear is the cause of bullying and ultimately is at the root of most all forms of hatred.

Withdrawing from a fearful situation is instinctive.

And the unknown is a major component of fear. What we don’t have experience in, and therefore have difficulty understanding, can cause stress. What is unknown varies from person to person based on their life experience. How they perceive the unknown varies too. What evokes fight or flight in one person can just be a challenge to another. This is where I see hope.

Two situations that can cause the same instinct: If I’m afraid because I’m alone in a dark parking lot and someone seems to be following me, I want that adrenalin pumping. I want fight or flight to set in. I’d imagine we all do. But if I’m uncomfortable or even afraid when faced with a stranger exhibiting, for instance, unusual body movements and slurred speech, when I’m behind a counter of a lighted restaurant with coworkers there, do I want to instinctively react in the same way? Do I even have a choice?

In the restaurant scenario, I choose to believe that there was no thoughtful animosity in the worker’s withdrawal from the situation, just an instinctive retreat from the unknown. You could fear that the customer is high on some drug or possibly drunk, fear that you’ll insult them by asking them to write down their order or by asking their friend to help because you don’t understand.

Ultimately, though, I want a world for my children in which we err on the side of insulting by reaching out as opposed to insulting by walking away.

I’m fully aware that there’s a maturity, an intellectual, and a life experience component, the whole nature vs nurture thing. And I know that there are strategies for changing our behaviors. This would apply to situations in which there is time for rational thought, long past the point where fight or flight would have kicked in and resulted in an instinctive response.

But I also think that part of changing the mindset of our society is the hope that we have some control over the neural pathways involved in instincts. If they differ from one person to the next, we must have some ability to impact them. But how? If fear produces a chemical reaction in our brain, can we change those reactions, create different pathways, instinctively assess situations differently, distinguish between levels of circumstances that cause fear?

There are so many lessons we teach our children. And, honestly, fear is one of them. When my kids were young I wanted them to have a healthy fear of dangerous situations. I didn’t want them falling into a pool or running into traffic. But do we give enough thought to and direction concerning distinguishing between situations that should legitimately invoke fear and those that are unknown, but benign unknowns? I’m not sure that I myself did.

Instincts are, by definition . . . well . . . instinctive. So can we mold them? Re-route them? Where there are beneficial components, can we tweak instincts without eradicating them completely?

I hope so.
Baking In A Tornado
PS: Thank you Brittany, for initiating the conversation, inspiring thought, and allowing me to incorporate your story into this discussion.


Bacon Cheddar Beef Rolls
                                                                          ©www.BakingInATornado.com
 
Printable Recipe
 
Ingredients:
2 # lean ground beef
2 TBSP seasoned salt
1 tsp garlic powder
2 TBSP chopped roasted red peppers
2  chopped scallions
1/3 cup cooked, chopped bacon bits
3 slices of sharp cheddar cheese each cut in half
OPT: Shredded lettuce
6 hoagie buns
 
Directions:
*In a bowl, just barely mix the ground beef, seasoned salt, garlic powder, roasted red pepper, scallions and bacon bits with your hands. Don’t over-mix.
*Separate into 6 fairly even pieces. Roll each into a log about 5 inches long. Flatten each onto a piece of plastic wrap.
*For each of the 6 meat rolls, take a half of a slice of cheese, fold it into thirds, place in the center of the meat and re-form the beef into a log making sure the cheese is enclosed inside. They’ll be about 5 ½ inches long and resemble a sausage. Roll each separately into plastic wrap and refrigerate the beef rolls for one hour and up to a day.
*While your grill is cold and turned off, grease the surface. Heat your grill to medium. Remove each beef roll from the plastic wrap and place on the grill. Use tongs to turn them so they cook on all sides. How long will depend on how hot your grill is and how you like your hamburg cooked. I cooked my approximately 20 minutes to medium.
*OPT: toast the hoagie buns on the grill while the beef rolls are cooking.
*Place lettuce in the bottom of each hoagie bun, top with beef roll.

35 comments:

  1. Tough topic. I think you are right, instincts are instinctive, therefore hard to change. The knowledge thing is where change should be possible. People who work in the service industry should feel at ease to deal with all kinds of customers, and know what to do and say if they're "difficult" or "different".

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    1. I agree, Tamara. I also understand that many of these workers behind the counter are young adults and lack some of the maturity of their older coworkers. I still wonder about the instinct thing. Do they evolve? Can they?

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    2. I think they could - with an open mind and training. A friend of mine ended up in a wheelchair after a parachuting accident. He "taught" me what to do and what not to do. It was very eye opening.

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    3. I think your friend made it very personal for you. And that's a good thing. I know your son will benefit from what your friend taught you.

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  2. I agree with you about fear. It's a big driver of so many of our attitudes and actions.

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    1. Yes, fear is incredibly powerful. In many situations more powerful than rational thought.

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  3. As a teacher of intellectually disabled children, I see all kids of reactions toward them. When we are having a not so good day, the tantrums that occur can cause looks and comments from same aged peers. At our school, I try to explain to others what is happening so they won't make hurtful comments out of ignorance. It is amazing how young children can be accepting, and yet as they age, they become so intolerant of "different." It breaks my heart when I see different as being wrong and the object of ridicule. This is a post that hits home with me as you can tell.

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    1. I think your comment personifies my point that we certainly can change our thought process and behaviors. I do have hope that we can change our instinctive reactions too, that we can change what our brain defines as a threat. That's the part I don't know.

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  4. How many times have I found myself wanting to withdraw from someone who is exhibiting unusual behaviour? Wishing I could walk quickly past rather than 'get involved'? My middle son has been a true example to me. Going out of his way to interact with those people I'm more comfortable avoiding. He now works exclusively with special-needs adults. And continues to be my example. Love this post, Karen. Much needed. Especially by me!

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    1. Good for your middle son, he's doing his part to make the world a better place for us all. There are, without a doubt, so many caring people out there. I'm grateful for that.

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  5. I know what it's like to be different, but at least in my situation, it is usually just written off as "weird" by most people and not "disabled." I also probably have narcolepsy, but I definitely have the symptom of Cataplexy. Every time I feel a strong emotion, I go limp. At worst, all my muscles stop working and I drop to the floor, and I can't speak, smile or move. I can only drool on myself. A lot of times, especially in social settings, I get a partial where I lose some muscle tones in my back and arms, but if I try really hard, I can keep myself up. I get dizzy, and my speech starts to slur like a drunk person, and I suspect some stranger have probably thought I was drunk. Both only lasts a couple seconds to a couple minutes. And nobody is really forgiving of it. I tell people about it, and usually I get a, "That's weird I don't want to be around you" action more than a sympathetic, "That sucks." Even worse, job interviews make me nervous, so I'm always slurring and struggling to keep my head up and my arms doing normal things, and I have no filter at all because all my energy is on sitting normal as opposed to what I'm saying. I apologize for it, explain it, they don't care. That's not someone they want to hire.

    I don't think it's fear so much, like I see fear being a driving force to an extent, but I think we have an instinct similar to a wolf pack, for the most part. We humans are predators, and like wolves, we prey (often in packs) on the weak and injured. This is why struggling mothers with difficult children are usually chastised in public. This is why special needs are a top target to bullying. This is why bullies are generally nice when they are by themselves and not as nice when surrounded by their friends. We also have a class system that isn't dictated by money, but by aggressiveness. I notice it. I tend to be alpha male about things, not winning, but being the more dominant, aggressive person in a group (think BDSM roles, it happens just like that in all social settings but less obvious). Most people accept that I'm the dominant, but some will challenge it. My decision to deal with that challenge is always instinctive. I've seen dogs do it. My friend's dog Princess was the older dog who was like a mother to her friend's pitbull named Pimp. She was an adult when she met Pimp as a puppy, and they were around each other all the time. At that point, she was the one in charge. When Pimp got older, the roles reversed. I've never seen Princess back off a dog like she did Pimp. It was like on an instinctive level, she knew not to challenge him anymore because he was the stronger breed and age. And most people, they aren't that ferocious. They are actually pretty weak and pathetic as a result of being domesticated (and I use that term loosely), and they really go for the weak and injured for the most part. Only a few of us prefer to challenge the whole pack. The stronger. Standing up for the meek. Like you. I think, that is God's influence. That's the part where we are less animal and more spirit.

    Anyway, I loved reading the post. I already liked Brittany's page. I can totally understand where she's coming from considering I have muscle tone issues. Slightly different than hers, but I know what it feels like to try to communicate when I can't. The ironic thing is, she may look weaker to the instinctive level of humanity, but she is stronger in spirit, the thing we become when we die.

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    1. I'm sorry that you've had to develop defense mechanisms against society as a whole. I'm sorry that you struggle not only with your disease but with perception and judgement.
      I'm sorry, but I certainly don't feel sorry for you. You are a strong and intelligent person, you express your situation in a way that enlightens and evokes thought. Strength of spirit, something both you and Brittany have, is one of the qualities that I want most for my children and for the society they'll live in.

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    2. Of course with maturity comes understanding. We do have to teach our children tolerance. It is so easy to rush to your child's defense when their wrongs are pointed out. I don't condone rushing to judgement either way. But a Red Flag is a Red Flag. We also teach by example. Unfortunately not all are the picture of a great example.

      Employers need to receive and give sensitivity training. I guess that would go for all of us.

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    3. We do teach by example, without a doubt. Unfortunately there are some bad examples out there and there are people who've lived a more sheltered life. I do think that the more we're exposed to the more we understand as opposed to fear.

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  6. I think that a person upbringing has so much to do with their reactions to different types of people. What i mean is ai grew up with a homosexual uncle who was bullied, an obese brother who was bullied, i myself was bullied bc of my bipolar disorder. I believe that helped me to not fear people who are different. Whereas some friends of mine grew up hearing about people who are different but never had any experience with them so they dont have the same reactions as i do.
    I worry constantly about how people react to my 2 year old daughter bc of her differences, she was born with gastroschisis and has scars from it, and she also has minor autism and the looks and comments from people are cruel. It makes me worry what kind of children these people are raising all bc their afraid of things they dont understand or of things that could possibly happen to their family.

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    1. I completely agree that our experiences shape our reactions. I think your worries are legitimate. I truly hope that together we can all provide your daughter with a better environment to grow up in than the one we grew up in ourselves. I hope that open conversation is a step in that direction.

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  7. I totally agree that fear is rooted in hatred, as are insecurities----I've seen this in my family with some of my relatives and it's sad, really. There's not a whole lot though that I can do about it to help them. They don't want to be helped, so my mom, sister and I just live with it. Great, thought-provoking piece and very cool that you were able to connect with Brittany.

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    1. I think the most frustrating part for someone who sees this in their own family and knows that it's wrong is the inability to get through to them, to make them see what their attitude does to others. Makes me sad for everyone involved.

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  8. Thank you for writing this very thought provoking post. It's something we need more of.
    I believe that we CAN change our instincts if we really want to. Most of them, anyway, if we want to.
    I also believe you are correct in saying that now days people SHOULD know. I think it's more of, "if it doesn't affect me personally, I don't care". THAT is what makes me sad, mad and crazy.

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    1. I agree, Stacy, and that's a good point. I think apathy is a drain on our society and all we try to do to move forward. Makes me sad, mad and crazy too.

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  9. I agree with the immaturity aspect and the instinct for flight.
    I work with an elderly woman and it is so frustrating when everyone, even doctors talk to me instead of her. Her body is distorted but there is nothing wrong with her mind.
    I also have a grandson with special needs. People can be down right evil. A woman in the supermarket asked my daughter "whats wrong with him" My daughter cried but I lookedvthe woman in the eye and said "Nothing. He's fine what is wrong with you." She cursed at me and said my daughter was mentally ill for not having an abortion.
    Murder crossed my mind.
    So you can imagine my grandchildren know what to say and what not too say. They also learned sign language starting at 7 months.
    It is a tough topic, it truly is.

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    1. thank you, also, for sharing your story here.I think it's great that so many people I know are thinking this through and making real and meaningful (not just words) attempts at getting the message to the next generation. It gives me hope.

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  10. Great discussion Karen. Like some people run to the scene of an accident while others run away2. I hope we've passed compassion on to our children more than any other trait. It's about respecting not only other humans, but nature and also environment. I think it is a learned behavior. Love the recipe as usual.

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    1. I agree, Rena. One of the most important things we need to pass on is compassion.

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  11. Karen, this is a beautifully written post. I too agree that the unknown causes fear in most people and fear can be the root of hate. The world can be a cruel place.

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    1. Yes, it can. I just hope that as a society we can put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

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  12. "How can people not know?"
    They don't WANT to know.
    Whether it is on purpose or subconsciously, many people choose to ignore things that make them uncomfortable.
    I learned a lot by working on a supermarket checkout.

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    1. I agree that adults don't want to know and I bet you saw all kinds of people working on a supermarket checkout. But I also believe that our children do want to know.

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    2. I agree, children are naturally curious about anything different and it is up to us adults to steer them in the right direction, instead of shushing them and turning away as was done when I was a kid. There is nothing wrong with explaining the differences and how or why they may have occurred and encouraging the child to be friendly, say hello etc. A few generations down the track, the world might just be a nicer place.

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  13. Really good points - I try to have a "there but for the Grace of God, go I" attitude, but that didn't develop overnight. It took life experiences, to really understand that concept. I try to teach my children, but I also try to get them experiences, by making sure they include other children who are "different" from them. It's the experiences that make a major impact.

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    1. I agree that experiences are a key component to having a comfort level in new situations. The more our kids can experience first hand the better.

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  14. This post just brought tears to my eyes. You know of my struggles with Boy Child and his being bullied. I teach my kids that people are different and that we need to treat everyone as we would want to be treated. I've made them "color blind" ,so to speak. They see people for their personality, not for what the outside shows. They read the book instead of just judging by the cover. That makes me proud.

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    1. You have every right to be proud. I know how hard you try to raise your children to be kind human beings.

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  15. What an important post, Karen. I'm pretty passionate about this.
    While I understand the fear and instinct components (especially in the dangerous, night time example you gave), I believe this basically comes down to empathy and kindness. It shouldn't matter if someone varies from what we think to be normal. Each person should be treated with dignity and kindness. It wouldn't have taken the worker two seconds to say, "You know what? I'm having a bit of difficulty hearing you. Would you mind writing your order down for me so I can get you what you'd like? Shutting down is understandable, but in a situation where you're communicating for a living, its unacceptable.
    It starts when our children/students are small. Parents/Teachers are happy to have their children recite their ABCs or read '"War and Peace" by age ten.What really needs to be taught are things like, "Can that little person share? Can he help someone up who has fallen? Can he include the little person who is sitting all alone on the playground? These are skills that build accepting, loving grown ups. The social skills should be demanded and enforced from the very beginning.
    Feeling uncomfortable is never an excuse for being rude.

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    1. I completely agree with you that these are actually skills and they need to be taught and fostered from a very young age. I would hope that those would then become the natural instincts.

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