What makes the difference between two children raised in the same environment with the same parents when one ends up a neuro-surgeon and the other a hardened violent criminal?
What makes the difference between two patients suffering in a hospice center from identical conditions when one requires very little medication and is liked by all, while the other suffers bitterly regardless of the medication and no one really wants to be around them?
What are the subtle differences that seem to allow one person to live a certain life style free of illness while another doing the same things becomes ill as a result? What defines a stimulus as stressful to one while the same exact stimulus is welcomed with excitement by another? The answer is so simple as to be overly obvious.
In my work, I have had the opportunity to work with a wide range of individuals in differing settings, ranging from the inmate incarcerated in maximum security to the terminal patient in the hospice center.
Over the years my observations ultimately led to this hypothesis: the persons who seem to suffer most consider themselves to be victims. The classic victim scenario in the prison generally goes something like this: all but for the grace of God there go you. Translated by the inmate population, this means something like, “What would you do? Where would you be? After all, my daddy was an alcoholic, my mother was a prostitute and the neighbor boy hung heroine on me when I was only eight”.
The fact is, our environment and circumstance do imprint us in profound ways. Our very ability to cope depends in large on our choices and they are predetermined in large by our enculturation process. Thus, what else could the victim of these tragedies do?
We all grow up with some substantially similar ideas and notions about what is fair and acceptable. We all tend to say things like “When I’m a parent, I’ll do it differently”; and yet, when our children act in some way that meets with our disapproval, we respond just as our parents did. Psychologist call this process imprinting. In very simple terms, if you raise a duckling with chickens, it will behave as a chicken. There is a marvelous story that illustrates this point.
It seems one day that an eagle flew over a chicken coop. To his amazement, pecking in the yard below, was a large gathering of chickens and a lone, beautiful female eagle. He swooped down for a closer look and the chickens together with the eagle fled to the chicken house. For days the eagle watched the chickens from a distance until one day he was certain that he could stop the beautiful eagle before she reached the chicken house. With the prowess of an eagle he was suddenly in between the eagle and the chicken house. She trembled. He spoke, “What are you doing living down here like a chicken”. She answered, “I am a chicken”. He argued, showing her the similarities between himself and her. He told her of what it was like to be an eagle and soar high above the earth. His stories only frightened her. Finally she said, “Well if I’m an eagle then you will not harm me”. He responded in the affirmative. She said, “Then step back and show me.” As he stepped backed she seized the opportunity to run into the chicken house. When the other chickens questioned her about the encounter, she told them all of how she had outsmarted the eagle. Of course, all the chickens commended her for tricking the eagle.
Many of us are like the female eagle. We outsmart ourselves with betrayals of who we really are. Our choices are predicated on our beliefs and our beliefs have been adopted from the same process inherent to the story about the chickens and the chicken house. Here is another example of how this kind of reason pervades who and what we are.
One day a man walking the streets of Manhattan passed beneath a high rise complex that consisted of very expensive condominiums. As he passed under the balcony of one of the two story units a flower pot which had been placed precariously close to the balcony edge fell and crashed down on his head. Now imagine this man’s choices. What could he do? What would be the normal thing to do? Well, he could take the broken pot back to its owners and put it guess where. Administer a beating to the idiot that put the flower pot too close to the edge, that’s what most people respond with as their first thought when I have presented this scenario to audiences. What else could he do? Well, he could be metaphysical. You know, kismet, what’s to be will be, after all, maybe the blow to his head rearranged some neurons and now he will experience higher consciousness. So just be metaphysical and act as if it was supposed to happen and just go on down the road. What else could he do? Well, he could be an opportunist. You know that flower pot fell from a wealthy person’s ledge. Whip lash, concussion, something like that—sue the sucker!
What else could he do? What would you do? How about taking the flower to a florist, potting it and returning it as a gift of love? Could you just as well do that? Of all the possibilities, which one do you think would produce the best outcome for yourself in terms of happiness, wholeness and even health?
The fact is, the normal person has been trained to behave in a normal manner. Normal means that they have a right to become angry and exact punishment. Robert Laing once said something like “normal man has educated himself to be normal and thus to become absurd” in his book THE POLITICS OF EXPERIENCE. The emotional reaction termed anger is just one such absurdity. What happens to the body when one becomes normal is no less than a weakening of the immune system and further, suspended states of fight flight, or as we know it in more modern man, anxiety and depression, literally produce chemistry that is toxic to the human condition. As Dr.’s Steven Locke and Douglas Colligan point out in their book, THE HEALER WITHIN, these hostile emotions, victim, if you will, feelings, literally can condition the body in the direction of disease as well as produce certain diseases in and of themselves (1986).
The correct answer in our flower pot analogy is of course, pot the flower and return it as a gift. The idea is not foreign in terms of possible alternatives and yet it is seldom ever considered. Our choices arise from our definitions and they have been incubated all too often in chicken houses, but let’s stop for a moment and look at one of the preferred enculturated choices from the human chicken house. My work and research has demonstrated that for every fear there is an anger response. Sometimes the anger is withheld, turned in, and sometimes it is acted out. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as anger without some fear underpinning it! Now, what exactly is anger? My examination of this cycle of fear and anger has given rise to an acronym that I often use when describing anger. A—a, N—nasty, G—getting, E—even, R—response. A nasty getting even response. If fear and anger are circular, what is it that gives rise to feeling frightened, anxious or nervous, becoming angry and responding in a fight/flight way when the stimulus is something like the way my employer speaks to me, the way my significant other looks at me, or just the stuff one feels when cut off in five o’clock traffic and given the infamous bird. None of these things are truly life threatening and after all, isn’t that what the fight/flight functions are wired in for, the preservation of the species?
Dr. Carl LaPresch used to speak of “the four F’s” in his introductory lectures regarding basic psychology. These four primitive drives were the basis for most behavior. In fact, it was Carl who first suggested to me that perhaps the highest act of human consciousness was cortical inhibition—over riding the wired in responses that can occur in the primitive brain. The four “f’s” are easy to remember and oriented to species preservation: fight, flight, feeding and—well the propagation of the species.
Why then a fight/flight response to a synthetic stimuli—that is a stimuli that is not life threatening? What special lens do we attach to certain events in life that give rise to a perception of threat when indeed the threat is not a tiger in hot pursuit? My early hypothesis regarding the fear/anger loop eventually led to the conclusion that perceived threats were rejection oriented. In other words, our individual intrinsic value was denied. Interestingly though, for most of us, the normal strategy for avoiding rejection is itself the ultimate rejection. There are two ways to be tied up in the world. One is to have someone literally bind you and another is simply to tether oneself to a thread, refusing either to pull hard enough to break it or to let it go. Many of our beliefs are the product of the latter. We refuse to let them go. Like the eagle raised by the chickens, we know what we are expected to do and define our behavior accordingly. Thus, to resolve conflict we establish strategies designed to protect us from rejection. Among these strategies our defense mechanisms function, as well as our attitudes, toward everything we will encounter in our lives.
When I was a boy my definitions included labels and what I have termed for years as the no-don’t syndrome. In my many lectures throughout America and Europe, the audience has repeatedly verified that my experience was not unique. Indeed, it was the rule. If this generalization applies, then most of us were raised with statements like: “You’re not old enough.” “You’re stupid or that’s stupid.” “Children are to be seen and not heard.” “Don’t do this”—“you can’t do that”—and so forth as well as a host of labels.
It was not long before I was wearing glasses and one of my best friends was black. My early definitions were in direct conflict with my experience; still, various strategies for coping with this conflict developed, albeit most unconsciously.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I learned that not only did I wear glasses and have black friends, but my grandfather was Jewish and my great grandmother was Native American. For years I had coped by demonstrating that I was “tough enough” to wear glasses and not get called four-eyes and to stand up for what just inherently seemed wrong and later became known to me as bigotry and racism. In other words, my defense strategy was compensatory—aggression would align my inner with the outer—my experience with my training as a child could avoid conflict by simply becoming too tough for someone to challenge my behavior.
The result was devastating. Not only did I poison myself, but the never ending quest to justify my actions produced increasing needs for aggression. My relationships deteriorated and/or were destroyed, and well, you can just imagine the havoc wreaked in my own life. The method of choice for conflict in my particular upbringing was aggressive—and hostility was the norm.
What I have found over the years of life and work is that once again, this was not a unique pattern. Oh, the circumstances may vary from individual to individual, but the essence of the lesson never did. The result for many of us is a mechanism called blame. That brings us right back to our inmate whose daddy was an alcoholic and so forth. Alas, a light went on that set years of work and research into perspective, at least for me.
Now here is the bottom line: as long as one blames anything or anyone they are effectively tied up. There is nothing they can do. They are victims of their circumstances. They can only but whimper. As victims, they are helpless. As victims, perhaps they are even due benefits such as sympathy, attention, special care and so on. But as victims, they are not in charge of their circumstances and/or their responses.
Applying this theory I discovered that regardless of the circumstances, from hospice to prison, the suffering was directly related to blame or “victim-hood”. What is more, I discovered that on the opposite side of this continuum, rested the self responsible. The person who assumed control of their own life and found creative solutions for difficult situations—returning the flower, if you will, replanted in a new flower pot
These responsible individuals were in charge of their own inner environments. Their secret was simple, they did not become angry and involved in blame. Oh they did not necessarily accept everyone or anything, in fact, quite the contrary in some instances, but they did not waste time eliminating their possibilities by divesting their power via blame. They took the initiative to resolve situations positively and assumed the responsibility for doing so. Unlike the whimpering victim, they were what they made of the stuff of life and accepted so.
There is an interesting experiment that has been replicated many times and perhaps addresses the effect this kind of hopelessness/helplessness mentality can have on physical health. Dogs were placed in Pavlovian slings where they could do nothing when electric shock was administered by psychologist Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania in an experiment to determine the effects of helplessness. Seligman suggests that many of us have learned that nothing can be done in many circumstances to make a difference. Once the dogs were conditioned to the shock they were then placed in cages with floors that on one side of the cage an electric grid could be used to apply shock while on the other side of a low barrier wall the dog could escape the shock. What Seligman discovered has many ramifications. Dogs who had not been conditioned in the sling ran around frantically when shock was first administered. They learned to jump the small wall and escape the shock. They became so good at it that when the electricity was turned on, they simply got up and casually jumped over the wall. However, dogs that had been conditioned to the sling ran frantically at first just as the unconditioned dogs but soon quit and only whimpered. They accepted the shock passively and thus the whimpering shocked dog metaphor (Ibid). This sense or conditioned belief in victim-hood has been demonstrated to effect the immune system in a negative manner. The Institute of Noetic Sciences has funded much of the research in what is now termed PNI or psychoneuroimmunology and this body of work shows clearly, as does the entire body of literature regarding mind/body wellness, that the deleterious effects of certain mental processes on the body can literally kill ( ). Nothing I could do—helplessness—victim-hood—this side of the responsibility equation is among the worst of mental processes one can adopt regardless of its source. In fact, in a paper that is now in press, we learned from a follow-up study of terminally diagnosed patients conducted by PROGRESSIVE AWARENESS RESEARCH, that the physicians attitude is somehow more influential on patient life expectancy than either the treatment modality or the patients attitude toward their future, their responsibility regarding the disease and/or their outcome expectation. Somehow the attitude of the physician is assumed to have been communicated to the patient for in every single instance where the physicians responded to the questionnaire regarding patients role in terms of the positive use of their mind with neutral to negative evaluation, the patient died. The study generally indicated a survival rate of over 30% for all respondents (remission) and an increase in life by up to three years over time given in prognosis for those patients whose physicians generally agreed that the mind has a role in patient health even in the face of “terminal” illness. The assumption suggests that one must fully accept the responsibility for their own lives and mental processes even if that means guarding against the influence of another.
What then is the pragmatic to overcome, or I prefer, to outgrow, this early conditioning. Once again, it’s so simple as to be difficult—difficult to believe and difficult to do. The answer is forgive! In my research we began applying three messages as cognitive tools to untie the victim. They are called the forgiveness set and consist of these three statements: I forgive myself; I forgive all others; and I am forgiven.
When you forgive, you can not blame. If you do not blame it’s exceedingly difficult to become angry. What you cannot become angry about, you do not fear. When there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to become angry about or no one to blame. Life is simply a miracle and living is the process of maximizing the miraculous experience. Every thought or deed becomes therefore differently oriented. When you accept responsibility for everything in your universe, you gain the power to make changes. The real changes are made in you and thus your experience of life and self become qualitatively different almost immediately.
You are in charge of your inner environment, and your beliefs, attitudes and emotions do matter to you. Your health, your enjoyment of life, your ability to become all that you are is inescapably involved in your ability to forgive and let go.
But alas, you may say, that’s all too simple and further life sucks and then we die. And I am sure you can find many that will agree. Still, if you want to see the barnyard from the sky, spread your wings and see for yourself. Seeing is believing. Try it—I promise, you’ll like it. And if necessary, fake it until you make it.