Instincts and Drives: Powerful Stuff

Human beings regularly ignore the fact that we are mammals: warm-blooded, live-birthing animals who share a lot of DNA with beings as diverse as chimpanzees and elephants.

When it comes to thinking, we win, hands down. At least, most of the time. But we often forget how deeply we are designed to do certain things, like eat, sleep, defend, or mate.

The deer in this photo is dead. It killed itself by head-butting a 640 lb. bronze elk statue in a Wisconsin backyard. In the rutting season, deer will defend territory, attempting to secure mating rights and sending the less powerful males on to other acreage.

I post it because I found it an astonishing image. Mammals, driven by the powerful brain chemicals of hormones, will do a lot of strange things. Like head-butting a statue to death.

Research proves again and again that human beings underestimate the power of instinct and arousal on their own behavior. This one fact of mammalian biology may help us understand why we keep doing what we do, despite our own good intentions: eat more than we should; pressure another into sexual activity despite our more clear-headed promises; start fights when cooler heads should prevail; rest or play when we should work.

It’s not quite the Animal Kingdom in our heads, but at times, it can come close. How does remembering that you have powerful animal instincts change, concern or alert you to your own humanity? It’s worth pondering. (I’ve been wondering about people with brain or thought disorders, and whether they can truly be held accountable for some of their most anti-social behaviors…)

Wherever your conclusions about instincts and arousal patterns, thinking is the one thing you have going for you that this unfortunate, driven deer did not.

Photo Credit: Mark Brye, via La Crosse (WI) Tribune

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What Exactly is Closure?

Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims’ survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of “closure” with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can’t forgive, and I can’t forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find “closure” when some hidden secret is revealed, or when they find the answer to some perplexing mystery, like the disappearance of a loved one. People don’t say “I have closure” when they forgive someone, or when they have attended a funeral for one lost to cancer or accident.

“Closure” is a contemporary image which means, I think, I can put this part of my life to rest. I can close the door on this room and finally walk away. I can shut this window, this file, this book, all the images we conjure of things that are open and unfinished that once closed, we can put down or away or forget. 

But in the end, it’s a mirage. Because we will always have our whole life within us, and the whole of us to contend with from day to day. Nothing is ever really completely finished, is it? until the day we die. And even then, even then, God is not finished.

So, is closure just a wish for an end? That is my best guess on how we use it. Yes, we wish for our nightmare to end. And we call down closure upon it. Knowing, perhaps, it’s just a dream. But we call for it, nonetheless.

Secondary Trauma

Lord, have mercy.

We have endured another mass shooting in our nation, this time on a military base. It will take time to sort out the details of this horrible crime, but we are impatient to know: was this an act of terrorism? The shooter is a Muslim, and some have reported that he shouted to Allah as he fired his weapons. There will be a good deal to learn of this man in the weeks ahead.

Of great interest to me: he is a psychiatrist who worked with soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals of all kinds who regularly work with trauma survivors often find that hour after hour of listening to people recount horror is traumatizing. Without regular and systematic debriefing of their own work, therapists lose their own resilience and begin to suffer a secondary PTSD. They begin to show symptoms of chronic anxiety, restlessness, easy startle reflex, difficulty sleeping, intrusive images of trauma, and hypervigilance in the same way soldiers returning from battle can.

I wonder if this doctor, whose healing work helped soldiers return to their lives after battle, was waging a private battle of his own with nightmares, fears and overwhelming anxiety. Would he have been able or willing to share that suffering with others in the military? How are these fears linked to his natural anxieties about being deployed to the battle zone? Are there systems in place to have therapists working in PTSD debrief and consult with others about their cases and experiences?

Helping others recover mental health is not work for the faint of heart and mind. The very best healers understand that they are naturally effected by what they hear, and need help for their own pain. Perhaps this tragedy will highlight the continuing true costs of war: that the horrors of destroying others in battle don’t stop at a nation’s border. War is hell, and it exacts a toll far wider than we can imagine.

Oh God: hear our prayer.