I’ve you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I have, for the last two entries, been very angry. Anger is not rational. It’s an emotion, the fight in “fight or flight”, designed by nature to get you to be willing to risk harm to yourself to address a threat. And because it’s not rational, because it makes you tolerate far more risk than normal, when you are angry, you don’t think clearly. Your risk assessment becomes inaccurate, and hence the decisions you make become suboptimal.
The fight or flight response is part of human nature, but it’s not exclusive to humans. More accurately, the fight or flight response is part of animal nature, and we are animals. An animal who faces a threat, who is backed into a corner, has two instinctive choices: to fight, or to flee. In humans, “fight or flight” means those things literally, to either resort to violence or to physically run away, but it can extend beyond those options. Humans who fight can shout, yell, insult, sabotage, tell lies, argue. Humans who flee can ignore, disengage, deny, distract.
But human beings are not just any old animal, not purely driven by animal instincts. We possess a trait that animals do not, a concept we call “transcendence.”
Cynical people do not believe in transcendence. They see the world as purely a Darwinian struggle, a battle of the fittest, a contest to see who will fight and who will flee, and if life has any purpose to it, that purpose is to be strong enough to win any fight that comes along.
I am not cynical, or at least, I try not to be. I believe in transcendence. I believe we humans possess the possibility to find a third way out, a choice other than fighting or fleeing, a choice that does not result in a sorting between winners and losers, a choice that makes winners of us all, even the meekest among us who would have to flee at any threat.
To me, as a Christian, that transcendence of our animal natures is embodied in the image of Jesus on the cross. That image, the most ubiquitous symbol in human culture, exists to guide us beyond the dichotomy of fight or flight, Because the thing that directs the fight or flight response is fear, and fear arises out of vulnerability, or specifically, a rejection of vulnerability.
God is not vulnerable. So that is why that image of Jesus, the Son of God, being tortured to death is so important. Jesus willingness to go to the cross tells us that the very most important thing we can do as human beings is to accept, rather than reject, our vulnerability. Because if you don’t accept your vulnerability, you are trapped into the choices of fight or flight. But if you accept that vulnerability, all sorts of other options open up to you. You can transcend cynicism, transcend fight or flight, transcend the Darwinian sorting into winners and losers, and find a way to lift even the meekest among us into inheriting their fair share of the earth.
So when I say I’ve been angry lately, that’s also saying I’ve been a bad Christian lately. When you’re angry, it is a sign that something that is making you feel vulnerable, that you have rejected that vulnerability, and that you have chosen “fight” in the choice between fight or flight. It’s a sign that you have narrowed your options, that you are closing the door on win-win scenarios, ensuring that someone, if not everyone, will lose.
One of the things that is making me angry, of course, is that our country’s leader is probably the single most cynical person in the world. But it’s more than that: my anger arises from his supporters who call themselves Christians, who are rejecting their own vulnerability, who are choosing cynicism over transcendence, and who are throwing our whole country into fight or flight mode. The very people who by their labels as Christians ought to be our country’s antibodies against cynicism, are the ones who instead are most strongly promoting it instead.
And that throws me into fight or flight mode, that I either want to fight these Christians who don’t understand Christianity, or give up in despair that the religion I believe in has become hopelessly corrupt, and to flee my beliefs because of them.
And then, once you get thrown into fight or flight mode, it is much easier to fall into fight or flight mode about everything. So I’m angry about Trump, I’m angry about our local elections in my hometown, I’m angry about the pandemic, I’m angry about racial injustice, and I’m angry about the cheatin’ Houston Astros beating my beloved Oakland Athletics in this AL Division Series.
I was in fight mode when Khris Davis homered early in Game 2 to give the A’s a 1-0 lead. I was in an even bigger fight mode when Sean Manaea gave up a home run to George Springer to give the Astros a 2-1 lead. That home run really ticked me off. Frickin’ asshole cheating Houston Astros, I hate hate hate them.
Then as the game progressed, and it became quite clear that the A’s offense was going to do absolutely nothing against Astros pitching in this game, my mode started to shift. The A’s are going to lose this game. The A’s are going to lose this series. The odds had shifted. I’m in fight or flight mode, and I’m going to lose this fight, so psychologically, I needed to shift into flight mode.
So my mind started moving into the “I don’t care anymore” thought zone. Anger switches into detached pessimistic rationalization. The A’s, without Matt Chapman, aren’t realistically better than any of the other playoff teams. It was highly unlikely they could, as the inferior team, get through four rounds of playoffs without being defeated. It would require an incredible amount of luck. I should be satisfied just winning one series, and ending their cursed streak of playoff futility. I should start thinking about what I’m going to do with my time after the baseball season is over.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if I switch into flight mode about baseball. Baseball doesn’t matter. It’s just an arbitrary consequenceless contest. But some battles have real consequences. It does matter if I switch into flight mode about Cynicism and Fascism. Because getting people to switch into flight mode is exactly what Fascism is all about.
Fascism wants you to know that they are strong. Stronger than you. That’s why Donald Trump makes a show of taking off his mask when he returns to the White House. He wants to show that he has the strength and willpower to defeat every enemy, including a nonsentient virus. Fascists want you to think that will fight you, every step of the way. Fascists want you to think if you fight them, they are too strong to defeat. They want you to think that they will fight you until you are too tired to fight, until you go into flight mode, and stop fighting.
And then they’ve won.
There are two things you can do about that. You can play their game, fighting them every step of the way, making a show of your own strength, real or propagandized, until either they’ve crushed you, or you’ve crushed them. And in the process, you probably crush each other, and everybody loses.
Or, you can transcend that narrow battlefield, step out of fight-or-flight mode, and play a different game.
Transcending the fight-or-flight mode doesn’t mean not fighting. Not fighting is the same as flight mode. You haven’t transcended the fight-or-flight mode if you’re fleeing the confrontation.
Transcending fight-or-flight mode means doing the one main things humans can do but animals can’t: seeing things from someone else’s point of view, and understanding why and how they came to fall into their own fight-or-flight mode, empathizing and forgiving them for reacting as they have in those circumstances, (for “they know not what they do”, as Jesus said on the cross) and then using your intelligence to dig down to the true real cause of those circumstances, and addressing them, even if and while you resist their fight against you.
That’s what transcendence is. That’s what wisdom is. Human wisdom, as only humans are capable of possessing.
Wisdom requires experience, and training, and learning. As the A’s face elimination today, I will be tempted to fall into anger, or despair, if they lose. And maybe I will fail to transcend this moment, fail to lose with grace and wisdom. For I am human–part animal, but also part holy spirit. And if I do fail today, I hope the people around me will forgive me for my failings, as I try to forgive those who fail around me.