One morning, I was driving Maya to school, our dog Thierry leaning against her, calmly peering out the window in the backseat. As we approached a line of cars backed up a quarter mile down the road from an intersection, we found ourselves behind a cement truck. From the backseat, I heard a low growl, followed quickly by a gruff bark and more low growling. Thierry’s hackles were raised as she stared glassy eyed, her ears up, at the back of the cement truck in front of us. Soon she was in full-on protective mode, trying to claw at the windshield to get at the threatening truck in front of us.
Maya and I were in hysterical laughter at Thierry’s reaction to the cement truck. When you looked at it with your head slightly tilted, your perspective slightly skewed, it appeared like the enormous face of a dog, or some gigantic alien beast. She was scared and instinctively became protective, angry. We could smell her fear, literally. And hear it. It wasn’t until the cement truck turned off the road and the imminent threat was gone that she calmed down. Obviously, her reaction was instinctive. She doesn’t have the gift of higher reasoning.
And then there are humans. Isn’t it curious that, even with our gift of higher reasoning, our brains still are hard-wired to respond to a feeling of fear by lashing out, by getting angry. In situations where our physical safety is at risk, it makes sense. But we don’t face hungry lions in the bush very often anymore. Sure, people get mugged and attacked in various ways from time to time, but most of us never will face true physical danger in our lives. We’ve insulated ourselves thoroughly from it. Now our survival kicks in with what we perceive as danger.
Like prejudice. Homophobia. Xenophobia. Relationships. Intimacy issues. Peer disagreements. Political beliefs. Our adrenaline hits us when we have an argument with a family member, or when we move, or when our bank account balance is lower than we’d like. Stress. It manifests in countless ways, but it’s all in our heads. It’s the difference between walking the path of fear and walking the path of love. It’s a choice you have when the adrenaline is raising your heart-rate and your face is flushed … your hands are shaking. “Am I in a life or death situation?” The answer is probably no. You can breathe, calm yourself down, put it into perspective. Rise above your instincts. Use your higher reasoning.
Thierry wasn’t in any danger from the cement truck either. But no amount of “It’s okay, Thierry, it’s okay,” was going to convince her of that fact. She’s a slave to her instincts. She has no ability to reason, to put the situation and her response into perspective. We have the choice. My dog doesn’t. And god, aren’t we lucky to have that gift?