A long time ago, I read somewhere that, even among animals, behaviors that have been called “instinctual” and “inborn” are not really that, not really like breathing or blinking or whatever. Baby animals of species that, in adult form, fight each other, prey on each other, eat each other, have been known to interact with curiosity, with seemingly friendly interest.
Part of this is probably because baby animals all have a baby smell, a smell that tells adults of their own kind, “take care of me, I’m a baby.” Part of it is probably because they have not yet been trained by their parents to recognize certain animals as creatures to ignore and certain animals as creatures to stay the hell away from. And they probably don’t have a clear idea of which animals they are supposed to hang with most of the time.
Inter-species tolerance and friendship are based on a more “instinctual” response to life than running away from things one is taught to fear. They are based on curiosity. If sentient beings on planet Earth have one thing in common, I think it is curiosity. In the absence of clear prohibitions against obviously dangerous things, curiosity wins.
Curiosity on planet Earth has to be tempered, obviously, or there would, thanks to many dangerous things, be a lot fewer sentient beings. So, adults have to convey to children: watch out.
Animals seem to pick up a number of useful behaviors from Mom and Dad aside from being careful in various situations. They realize they are this kind of animal and not that, need to do this and not that, and need to get about the business of being whatever sort of animal they are.
Human beings have a much more difficult time with learning how to be and do human. History and pre-history would seem to indicate that, yes?
The process of learning what and who to focus on, to ignore and to run away from, when mutually engaged in by human parents (who should know what they’re about) and human children (who are not born with much of a clue about anything except being curious) inevitably results in the offloading of misconceptions, misunderstandings, fears, frustrations, and a lot of other things that make it almost impossible for human offspring to realize in a clear, simple way that they are human beings, that need to do this and not that, and that they need to get about the business of being human beings.
These days I’m thinking that, in many, many areas of life, maybe all of them, human beings end up functioning the ways they do because from birth they take the idea of being afraid of things for the sake of self-preservation to great extremes. They almost seem at times to be born afraid, and life from birth on is a process of desperately seeking to avoid everything that makes them afraid (while putting on a front of “I’m cool”; admitting fear of anything is the surest way for humans to call down rejection and destruction).
This week, I’ve been mulling over WHY certain things are so hard for me, why I engage in insanity on a daily basis (“insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result”), and why, when I have an opportunity to do or have things that give me delight, I sometimes literally break out in a cold sweat.
It boils down to: the earliest fears of my life are still highly operational. I think that these are fears that got a grip well before I reached the stage of cognitive development that allowed me to begin to speak, to deal with abstract concepts, and to remember things in words as well as in feelings, to be analytical and rational and to function knowing that strong reactions to things understandable but irrational based on current circumstances.
There are certain areas of my life in which, when I think about it, dislikes (of noise, of being alone in strange places, of meeting new people, of losing things) and likes (of talking with friends, of long solo walks, of drawing, of going to the movies, of reading with a bowl of soup, of men with deep voices, of women with nice smiles) have roots stretching back to my earliest memories and undoubtedly before that.
Certain things that just “are” in my emotional landscape (positive and negative), things I take for granted as being just who I am and how I feel, things that define me as me . . . time and time again, I see them as being rooted in the beginnings of my life, a time when I had no choice about accepting or rejecting what I experienced, and I had no way to make sense of them except on a non-verbal gut level.
And the reality is that I was probably frightened of a lot of things. And feeling horribly fearful and out of control about a lot of things probably lasted longer for me than for other people because I was prevented from going through the normal stage of development in which a child learns to crawl, stand, walk, explore his or her environment, and learn about accepting some limitations and overcoming others.
For most of the first two years of my life, I had to wear a brace designed to correct hip dysplasia (a too-loose connection between my left hip and left leg). I had to sit a lot and wait and watch. Though I learned to swim across the floor, I could not really go anyplace unless someone carried me. So, instead of interacting with my environment directly, I interacted by observing and trying to make sense in my head of what was going on.
And being a small child, I had the problem that small children always have: I could think pretty logically, but I could never arrive at a solid conclusion. My major premises were always wrong because I had no experience of real life to base them on. The conclusions I came to about a lot of things was that things were noisy and scary and I couldn’t do anything about them except wait for an adult to come and take care of things (and in some situations wait, wait, and wait).
(I’m writing this as if I remember the details of what I thought and felt at age two; I actually remember some things from that time, but I’m assuming that, if I have thought and acted in certain ways as long as I can remember, then back before I can remember, I was probably doing the same thing.)
The whole point of this rambling sorting-out of thoughts is that fear of almost everything to some degree was my companion early in my career as a human being, and that fear is still with me, influencing everything I think, say, and do. It’s not (so to speak) reasonable animal fear learned from my parents to help me keep out of the jaws of predators. It’s more pervasive, more subtle, more wacked and dark than the fear any animal might show when sick or injured.
It seems to me that human fear is not something that has to be taught; it is something that we are born with; we start out like little animals, full of curiosity and wonder about the world around us, but even before our parents start to teach us about being careful with scissors and holding hands when crossing the road, fear begins to over-ride curiosity and everything else.
Unlike animals, we don’t have to be taught to be afraid. In order to recognize that we are human beings, that we need to do this and not that, and that we need to get about the business of being human beings, we need to learn in ways that I can’t begin to get my head around not to be afraid.
And as far as I can tell, through the entire convoluted, sordid, bizarre, puzzling history of human kind, we have never ever really done that. We’ve put on a good show. We’ve developed philosophies, theories of diet, exercise programs, mood rings, mantras, talk shows, mattresses, and God knows what else to help us feel good, look good, walk tall, and project confidence and intelligence.
But take away a job, a home, a loved one, a limb, and what happens? Under all the swagger and assurance, what is there?
Even WITH a job, a home, loved ones, and all my limbs, I am aware that my inner two-year-old is sitting in her high chair, wide-eyed, with her little heart hammering and about to explode through her chest wall.
I assume as well that everyone else’s inner two-year-old is doing the same thing. However, in a world full of (among other things) war, economic upheaval, racial intolerance, child abuse, and almost infinite varieties of death, human beings go on being cool, mature, well-informed, capable, and confident that the standard mantras (“it is what it is” and “shit happens”) will keep bad things at bay Yeah, right.