We are generally taught that there are two responses to fear – flight and fight. This is based on the animal kingdom where the options for meeting a threat are limited to some form of aggressive counter attack, or some type of withdrawal. I was challenged to reconsider this limited view by a very thought provoking post on The Change Blog by Gary Stokes called My Victory Over Fear.
Gary’s post tells how as an adult he was left with a legacy of fear from experiences of being bullied as a young person. Gary made the decision not to allow this residual fear to continue to affect his life, and began looking for ways to challenge it. The opportunity arises when he is confronted with a young man dragging a woman out of a bar by her neck and hair. Gary realises that he needs to act. What happens next is very interesting. He finds himself standing between the couple, reassuring them.
Gary didn’t run, but he didn’t attack either. He exercised an third option which is available to human beings because we have feeling hearts and intelligent minds. He resisted the violent dynamics of the angry man and reframed the situation, bringing a new dimension of safety and calm into the interaction.
Bullying seems to be a major problem worldwide, and unfortunately the dialogue about how to respond is often limited to options based on fight or flight. Some kids are told to fight back, literally, and rewarded for doing so, while those who don’t are labelled cowards. In other situations, people who fight back or retaliate are blamed or even punished. In both of these scenarios, the victim can become a victim twice over. It seems like the third option is missing, the possibility of offering resistance and changing the situation without resorting to violence.
The difficulty with bullies is that they want to write the storyline. They set the scene and assign the roles. They are the strong dominant one, you are the victim. As victim it seems like you only have two options, to fight back in an unequal situation, or accept violence and intimidation in the hopes that it will pass quickly. This perception that there is no way out of the bully’s distorted world can become all encompassing, leaving people with a legacy of fear, and in worst cases, pushing them to suicide.
The dialogue needs to include a third possibility, which involves resisting the bully’s world view by refusing to buy into violence and fear and offering a different way out. Gary Stokes took this way out by risking being injured himself and offering reassurance. Some people change a violent dynamic with comedy. In both cases, the situation changes because they appeal to a different aspect of the attackers nature, drawing out another side of their humanity.
Its not easy. People can be so fixed in their violent intent that they are not going to be persuaded. Fear has a paralysing effect, and it can be impossible to think or act in a split second. Targets of aggression are often young or vulnerable, and may not have the opportunity or capacity to respond in a creative way. Even so, its important to at least acknowledge the possibility of another way. That other way involves tapping into our joint humanity, making use of our heart and our intelligence. It might even include tapping in to the humanity of the aggressor. Humanising the situation creates more possibilities than fighting and running, but in order to do so, we need to be able to manage our fear and access our hearts and minds.
Thinking and talking about these things ahead of time gives us more options when a crisis comes. One of the most interesting aspects of Gary Stokes intervention in the domestic argument was that he doesn’t seem to remember deciding what to do. It wasn’t an intellectual decision. It seems that he automatically intervened in a peaceful way because of who he had become, and how he had been preparing himself to confront his fears. Gary didn’t allow the bully to write the script, and in this case, he succeeded in taking the steam out of a very volatile situation. By confronting his fear, and acting with humanity, he was able to open up new possibilities. I think that is a lesson to us all.