Fight or Flight.
When we are startled by something a part of the brain, the Amygdala, instantaneously prepares us to respond before we even know what startled us. Psychologists have even discovered that our adrenal glands begin to produce cortisol to fuel our muscles in preparation for the two potential responses. (I know, I sound smart…but don’t be deceived. I just read it in a General Psychology textbook.)
The response we make in that split second is up to us…mostly.
Dozens of factors influence whether we will respond to danger with aggression or not—our biological makeup, our genes, the violence we’ve been exposed to, even the weather!
Psychologist, Albert Bandura, conducted the famous “Bobo Doll” experiment, an example of “Social Learning Theory,” which proves that what we observe directly influences our behavior. In the experiment children were put in a room, one at a time, with various toys. For the experimental group of children an adult in the room would get up and attack a Bobo Doll for 10 minutes while shouting, “Sock him in the nose! Knock him down! Kick him!”
The child would then be taken to another room filled with toys, but they would be told not to play with them and to save them for someone else (this obviously frustrated the child). Then they would take the child to another room of toys, including the Bobo doll. The children who watched the adult attack the doll were much more likely to take out their frustration on the doll by beating and screaming at it.
In our culture violence is a virtue. From the home to the TV screen, from the playground to the military; we are conditioned to react to stress with violence. When the fight or flight response is triggered we are much more likely to choose to fight.
Our tendency toward violence blinds us to the reality of another response we can choose in the face of danger—specifically an attack from another person.
It’s what Jesus tells us to do in response to our enemies.
But, our minds aren’t equipped to respond with forgiveness on their own. Just as our mind needs the Amygdala and our muscles need adrenal glands to facilitate the appropriate response, our spirit needs some sort of stimulus to prepare us to respond with forgiveness.
And even then, stimulation isn’t enough. We may know that we need to respond with forgiveness, but how do we do it?
We need to be conditioned for the Christ-like response.
For those of us who have grown up in a culture that praises violence, you know that we can’t simply flip a switch and become peace-making, enemy-lovers. (If I’m being totally honest, I think I’d still try to kick the crap out of someone who attacks my family or me.)
I am terrified of the Third Way. It isn’t the efficient way. It might not be the effective way. It’s certainly the most dangerous way.
But, it is Jesus’ way.
So, how do we decondition ourselves from violent tendencies and recondition ourselves for love?
Here are a few of the ways I am trying…
I ask God to fill me with the love that led him to the cross. I pray that I can see my enemies through God’s eyes—as bearers of his own image. Recognizing that I am a deeply violent person, I invite the Holy Spirit to empower me with the peace that surpasses understanding so that I can pour it into a violent world.
Responding better to the little things
Now, I didn’t grow up in a violent household. My parents are pretty calm people. But, I watched friends, “role models,” and TV characters (mostly males) take out their anger in incredibly stupid ways…like punching and throwing things. Actually, it’s completely normal to watch a male express anger by beating the mess out of an inanimate object.
I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I’ve done the same thing a few times. As I’ve grown older though, I’ve learned to express anger inwardly rather than outwardly. I let things build up and make me bitter.
Someone who has smoked for 20 years doesn’t quit in one night. It takes baby steps and training wheels. Even after quitting there is a chance of backsliding. I suppose the same is true for breaking the habit of violence. If I can respond better to the little things I can be a better husband to my wife, a more respectable person, and hopefully I can learn to respond peacefully in the face of my enemies.
Filling my mind with peace
Reading, watching, and acting out violence isn’t exactly the way to learn how to make peace.
Now, I must confess that I enjoy old Westerns. I’m fascinated by war movies. I think Batman is awesome. Dexter is one of my favorite TV shows.
Maybe that makes me a hypocrite…but…I’m making an effort to read the works of peacemakers, to understand how Scripture leads us to bring the peaceable Kingdom to Earth, to look at the life of Jesus and make peace as central to my being as it is to his.
What are other ways we can recondition ourselves to respond peacefully rather than violently? What books, prayers, or other resources have helped you in your search for peace? For those who are not pacifists, do you think there is a need for reconditioning?