What part does fear play in your life? In modern life? In the US election? In our response to Covid-19?
Our human bodies evolved nervous systems that respond to threat with fear then activate survival responses — flight fight freeze fawn. Our primitive brain rules and our conscious mind has trouble being heard. We become more selfish and self-centered as we are driven by unconscious needs for survival. Fear plays an enormous role.
We also evolved to survive and cooperate in small communities or tribes — extended family groups of people who have each other’s back and view outsiders as a threat. The most successful groups had a diversity of skills and perspectives. Some people were hypervigilant and warned the others of impending threat. Elders were valued for the wisdom of experience. Others had a gift for healing.
We understood that the tribe survived or died together based on cooperation and mutuality of respect. A downside is that within this structure, individuals were highly susceptible to being shamed. It was a survival threat to be kicked out or ostracized and we did anything to stay connected.
It matters who we see as “our people”. Who is our insider group and who is in the threatening outsider groups? We are hardwired to mistrust and compete with people on the outside. Taking the US election as an example, many people identify as a Democrat, Republican, or Independent. It is hard to vote outside party affiliation, in part because it can trigger fear of exclusion or punishment.
We also have wider affiliations of people who hold similar values and in this area stereotypes and misinformation also abound. Left-leaning people define ourselves as valuing human rights and freedom and right-wingers as intolerant and out to take away our rights and freedom to be who we are. Even though we don’t believe all are bigots, we see voting for Trump as a sign that is not a deal-breaker. Right-leaning people define themselves as valuing freedom from government interference in their lives and view left-wingers as socialists who want to push everyone else (women, people of color) to the front of the line at their expense. We harden into these boundaries through fear.
We are vulnerable to lies and misinformation about who is in the enemy group and President Trump plays this masterfully. He uses fear to raise the perceived level of threat against “his people” and like all bullies, threatens them with expulsion if they go against him, and invites them to tuck themselves under his wing. “I am like you,” he tells working class people. “Stay with me. We’ll fight together. We are strong together. We will Make America Great Again.”
There is a danger in unexamined beliefs about the “other side” and defining people as the enemy because of the way they vote. We may look at the actions of people on the far edge of the continuum and paint the whole group with these qualities. We are rightly afraid of extremist terrorists. They are a real threat. Are they representative of the whole of that larger group? Fear narrows our perspective and hardens our heart to “outsiders”.
What can we do to keep an open heart? One thing is that we could notice when we feel overwhelmed or afraid. Black and white thinking and believing stereotypes about a large group of people can signal hard-heartedness. We feel it in our body as contraction and tightness. We might take some deep breaths, relax our body and commit to down-regulating our own nervous system.
We might explore the nuances of not being in denial about our situation and the very real threats we face, balanced with connecting with the humanity of other people who are also scared and grieving. We are called to this level of advanced practice. Are you in?