If we’re lost, we need to find ourselves
Messages for Victims and Survivors of Crime Week – Part 6 of 7 in series
A Learning and Violence Stance is a place to stand with curiosity, connection and conscious awareness, before the colonial gaze of judgments, diagnoses, labels and standard stories shape and limit our view.
When we understand the nervous system and how it works to protect us from danger, it can help us recognize what is happening in ourselves, and in others, at any given moment. That in turn can support us in the vital process of moving away from judgment, from assumptions, from running with entrenched old stories; it can help us move away from shame and blame. It may help us to avoid reacting to what others say or do. It may become a story that can help us to find ourselves with more spaciousness, allowing for new responses to tough situations.
The nervous system is always on alert for threat. It constantly checks for cues that signal danger inside our bodies, and outside in the environment, as well as in the connection between us and other beings nearby. Just as our organs work without our conscious attention, so does this system of protection. When danger is sensed, it kicks in to protect us. It prepares the body for fight or flight. It shifts blood flow to our large limbs to hit or to run, it speeds up our heart, and triggers a release of biochemicals to fire us into action. When that fails to protect us, when we can’t escape or fight, then the next protective system kicks in: the last-ditch survival system, that slows our heart and breath, shuts down digestion. This system, now often known as “freeze,” or even “placate,” numbs us to help us survive. Like other animals in the same situation, we “play dead” in the hopes we may be overlooked or ignored, and perhaps have another chance to escape alive.
We may settle deeply into those protective states, or simply catch a whiff of them in any moment. When we experience much violence, perhaps early in our lives, or when every interaction is shaped by the systemic violences woven throughout society, these protective mechanisms kick in quickly and comprehensively. Everyone’s nervous system checks constantly—is this moment safe or dangerous? When our experience of violence is extensive, then countless cues may signal danger. Perhaps our breath is shallow and our heartbeat rapid, trained from long years of looming danger, or the environment at home or in public spaces is full of echoes of mistreatment experienced too often. Or maybe people close to us are on alert, always responding to danger, and our nervous system instead of being calmed by the presence of others, continually confirms the threat. In such circumstances the internal systems that respond to danger may simply never switch off, limiting the ways we can respond to others, or engage in learning. That always-on-guard nervous system, ever-alert and activated, or constantly numb and frozen, takes its toll on health and well-being. In a violent and unjust world, that sensitive nervous system has definitely proved itself vital for survival, but it limits the range of responses we can engage in any moment.
Any of our senses can help us to get to a place where we can settle our nervous system—unhook ourselves from past violences and move out of protective patterns. In any moment where we can make that shift to a sense of safety, we may be able to find a broader range of responses to call upon. Some of us may have one sense in particular that we know allows us to reconnect to ourselves and to the present. We may know that if we sigh, or rock, or sing with others, run or ride a bike, listen to just the right music, spend time in nature, with an animal or a calm friend, or something else we have discovered, our system settles a little. Then we have access to more choice of response than that of only reacting to danger. When we can find more spaciousness in our response to one moment, even when it is stressful or harmful, then the next may turn out differently.
I believe that to strengthen our capacity to settle ourselves, or to support others to do so, is a vital step in being present and engaged enough to play our part in shifting systems that violate. Working to change this unjust world is an act of survival for us all.
How do you settle yourself? What support do you offer others to help them expand their repertoire of responses to difficult moments?
How are you working to support alternatives to the violence threaded throughout this world? What might help you, as Arundhati Roy calls on us, to be “ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it”?
The content of this series of posts owes more than I can say to years of working and engaging with many friends and colleagues, but especially these last weeks with Julianne Hodgins, Kate Nonesuch, and the other members of LAVA: Heather Lash, Nadine Sookermany, and Susan Tiihonen.
Sometimes they have challenged me directly. More often the stories they have told of their own experiences and of others have sharpened and broadened my understanding of this unjust, colonialist, white-dominated world. Every interaction has shifted my thinking and deepened my understanding so much that I cannot claim this writing as my own. I can hear the voices of Heather, Nadine, Susan, Julianne and Kate in many of the ideas I am presenting here.
They have engaged with many drafts of this writing and helped me clarify. For all that, I did choose these words at this time and I take full responsibility for all errors or inadequacies, the places where I remain limited by my failure to understand outside my own experience and social location.