Accept or React?

Working in a psychology lab focused on social cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University has allowed me to keep an eye out for answers to some very profound questions I have been asking myself for a long time, and even I don’t remember how long. One of these questions is, “how do you react to fear?” Incidentally, in one of the studies run at our lab, subjects were instructed to either react naturally to scary and pain inducing images or, alternatively, to try and put themselves into an accepting mindset, one in which the fear they were to experience simply would be allowed to exist. But more on that later…

Naturally, there are fears that better be reacted to, such as when an immediate threat enters our consciousness, and probably shortly before that it enters our subconscious, and our bodies are, almost automatically, set in motion to either avoid the threat, like dodging an oncoming car when we step onto a street we erroneously thought was empty, or to try and neutralize the threat, like taking aim and trying to thwart an insect we assume has the capacity to inflict pain or spread disease.

This kind of instinctive program, the fight-or-flight response, is still very strong and powerful in our species, and, at least in the here and now, for good reason. But humans have also evolved quite a bit further, and something else is by now “added to the program”, something that I believe is at the center of the human condition: we know that no matter how much we struggle for life, and no matter how well we adapt this fight-or-flight response, in the end we cannot win. We are, one could say, doomed to die. Obviously, I am not the only one talking about this: for instance, in a 2003  documentary, “Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality”, something I can recommend as worth watching, for instance at Netflix, film makers explore this question together with psychologist and anthropologists.

The paradoxical condition we find ourselves in can, I think, be characterized by those two elements and a twist: our instincts and intuitive responses, almost immutably, compel us to react to threatening cues in the environment such as to preserve our lives. But at the same time we have foreknowledge, and this is one of the very few things I would say most people agree we know with the highest degree of certainty, that one day must come when we will die. If the two layers in our minds–the subconscious effort to preserve life and the conscious knowledge that we must, eventually, fail–were separate entities, operating side by side, maybe we didn’t have to suffer. And here is where the twist comes in: conscious thought has the ability to generate subconscious states. And this is also true for future events, even if the details of these events aren’t yet available. Thinking about or being reminded of our mortality generates, even unbeknownst to us, a state in which we are more likely to pick up the fight. Which is also why we can be excited in light of anticipating a positive event.

So, if this reaction of fear is in the subconscious whenever we think about death, is there any hope of ever finding peace? Well, here is where I would want to add to the movie by presenting some, admittedly preliminary and not yet published evidence from the study in our lab: being accepting of one’s fear, that is to say allowing oneself to experience fear but doing so not with the intention of reacting, that is to say taking a path outside of fight-or-flight, seems to have the effect of lowering the actual impact of that fear. In other words, by consciously deciding not to react to a threatening cue in the environment, but rather acceptingly experiencing its impact, we are, at least partially, able to mitigate its emotional consequences and, possibly, lower its “call for action”, something that still needs to be studies in depth…

I recently posted on this blog about why I love living in the U.S.A. And there isn’t really anything I feel I have to take back about this post. But… The instinct of preserving life has become something that, as an outsider, I would almost call ever-present, all-trumping, an obsession. The debate on abortion, something I also posted on already, is one example. Good people are fighting one another over when life begins, probably driven by, on the pro-life side, the fear of their own mortality. Another and potentially much more dangerous example is the American notion of protecting life world-wide. The reason why conservatives want to stock-pile weapons and bombs is not to destroy life but to protect it–how could you, without a good ace up your sleeve should life become threatened, right? But, as the documentary movie so aptly puts: the desire to protect one’s life has the subconscious effect of increasing the impulse to fight, and then of course fight those who seem to have a different world view, as that is what threatens our way of life. In short, this is a vicious circle, one that evolution unfortunately didn’t see coming… And I must admit it would be very unfortunate if the human condition is one where the instinct to preserve life is, in the end, what destroys it.

My own vision? If we could just all accept some realities, such as that people have different religions and world views, and that we all will die, then, maybe, we can all share this reality and have wonderful experiences together, and at least reduce the suffering caused by this truly and ultimately useless fight.

There is yet little scientific basis for my vision, but I am hopeful that someone out there might feel this is worth exploring: can accepting the fear that comes with the foreknowledge of death reduce the impulse to fight? And if the impulse is reduced, what are the consequences practically.

Outside of science, in thoughts people post online as well as in revered literature, there is of course ample “evidence” that others have thought of this before, and that I am not the only one with this vision. I want to share two examples:

One of my very dear friends, Jeffyi Lu, put it this way in a recent Facebook post of his:

Midnight Reflection: If life was the ultimate game, I would rather prefer to loose. Because winning dehumanizes my true ethical being. In other words, being the king of the world also means losing everything else. And that “everything else” is what makes me a compassionate human being.

And I take the liberty to copy and paraphrase from the comment I made to that post… Aren’t we all losers? Then again, can’t we also be champions? At least potentially? This much we know: we are guaranteed to die! Unfortunately, for most people it seems that life is about fighting death, fighting mortality, which is to say they simply react to their emotion of fear, although this fear is entirely caused by imagining the future, a future in which they no longer exist.

This struggle causes so much pain and suffering, and for as long as we literally suffer from the illusion we could ever win this fight, I do believe we cannot be truly human. So, to be a champion, one must accept that, in the very end, the fight must be lost–but, equally, fight we must, as life preserves itself through instinct!

To borrow another image from someone whose books have been read by millions, I want to quote J.K. Rowling, who has her title character Harry Potter think and experience the following (J.K. Rowling. “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, p. 512):

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew – and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents – that there was all the difference in the world.

So, yes, the true champion walks into the arena of life, knowing the fight will be lost, but with his head held high, accepting the inevitable but not despairing. And, to extend on that image a bit, that championship is exactly what Harry achieves, when he walks through the Forbidden Forest to meet his own death: you know what’s coming, death, but you still face it with dignity and humanity!

If we just, in our own lives, were accepting a bit more of the fact that, one day, we will no longer exist, and take it with a bit more “Buddhism” in our hearts and minds, not fighting it, but enjoying life while it lasts, maybe we would discover that the differences between cultures and ways of life are not reason enough to die for…