People have actually commented on how still I can be when the crazy is flying. And there is a lot of crazy flying around as I write this. Families being ripped apart by the U.S. government, open season for police on people of color, hard-won workers’ rights falling beneath the boots of corruption, Antarctic ice melting into the sea, and a growing silence where insects and birds used to be.
My response to forces larger and stronger than I am was conditioned growing up in the ‘70s with a father far away in a war and a mother alone with two small girls and too many demons of mental illness. I was terrified a lot; I was afraid my mother would hurt us more, that she would leave, that my dad wouldn’t come home, that this was my fault. As a child, I didn’t have a vote or money or a clue about options outside our house. I couldn’t leave, I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t connect, I couldn’t trust. I froze – waiting for this round of crazy to go by.
I’m seeing this response in myself and others in our adult situation where we can’t leave (there’s no Planet B), we can’t fight (the U.S. military is only getting bigger), we’re disconnected to the point that loneliness has become a deadly pandemic, and we don’t trust ourselves or anyone else. So many of us – with varying palettes of privilege – are frozen, waiting for this wave of crazy to go by.
Frozen in fear is a real response that buys us time. Perhaps the threat or danger will pass by or change. Perhaps the situation will change and no longer be threatening. Perhaps someone will save us.
Staying frozen, waiting for a miracle or a savior, when the danger is slow in coming is what is known as “boiled frog syndrome.” If you haven’t heard of it, it goes like this: if you put a frog in boiling water it will leap right out; but if you put a frog in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, the frog will stay put until it is boiled to death. Our freeze response buys time, it doesn’t resolve or reduce the danger.
In many situations, being still for a bit is a great advantage; it allows us to engage our conscious mind to make optimal choices. We can scan for levers, escape routes, allies, or a good-sized rock. Our fear has primed us to be laser focused, firing on all channels even when we are outwardly still. Staying still can allow the danger to pass us, or it can make us an easy target, maybe even complicit in the harmful consequences of our inaction.
We’re afraid for good reason – lots of good reasons. And our fear is present to help us make optimal choices to regain our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Michael Moore, a champion for working Americans and native of Flint, recently wrote a poignant essay about calling on his musical education to inform his continued engagement in activism, in our continued fight. He reminded us that a moment of stillness, a breath, is needed to keep playing. In our individual moment of breathing, we need to trust the rest of the musicians, our allies, to keep the music going until you can rejoin them.
I am suddenly reminded of giving birth. Mid-labor I became so exhausted by pain and fear that I fell asleep. I didn’t sleep long, maybe 20 minutes. I woke right before the stage called “transition” but should more accurately be called “transformation” – that point when I was sure I would die, that there is no way this birth could happen. As I wept in terror, my loved ones and caregivers assured me I could do this, that the birth would happen for both of us. The stillness before the final push was vital to both of us. I did it and was transformed.
Let’s breathe into this transformation. We need to work with our fear for what wants to be born.