My ANGER Leads to ‘Fight or Flight’ Response


Mister Rogers used to ask me a question on his television show through the words of a song. It began with, “What do you do with the mad that you feel. When the whole world seems oh so wrong?” and the song finishes with these promises, “For a girl can someday be a woman and a boy can be someday a man”  In this simple song he manages to teach us some measure of control all while validating the angry emotions we all have when things go wrong. Then he takes us to words of hope acknowledging that as we learn to master our emotion of anger (if that is even truly possible) that this will enable us to grow and become women and men. Is he suggesting that those of us who never master this powerful emotion of anger may not be fully men and women? I can’t say, but you might reach this conclusion. I bet you even know some (adults) who you would say act a lot more like children when they respond in anger to the world around them.

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Well today I want to take this simple idea of anger management and throw a wrench into it. I want to talk about the fight of flight response. That chemical undeniable reflex response that kicks in when we as humans fear for our very lives. I wonder, when was the last time you were angry? Can you remember? I mean REALLY angry. Spewing venom, throwing things, hitting things or people, screaming obscenities. When was that? Think about it right now. OK now when was the last time you were truly afraid for your life? You heart rate increased, you muscles tensed, your eyes dilated, you were panicked, that tunnel vision set in focusing you on that thing you perceived as an immediate threat to your life. Can you remember? Has it ever happened? For some the answer is no. For some the answer is, unfortunately, every day. It’s true that some in this modern “civilized” world are truly in fear for their lives each and every hour of each and every day.

So what it will take for those of us who do not have an experience of choosing fight or flight due to our lives being in danger, for us to respond to the world around us with the same energy that someone who is in fear of their life. How can we be provoked into choosing to either RUN or STAND and FIGHT? Some may ask if this is even a good idea. Doesn’t this emotional response (often rooted in anger) cause us to loose perspective? Doesn’t this place us in a compromised mental state incapable of making clear sound decisions? I wonder? Modern psychology tells us that, “…all of these physical responses are intended to help you survive a dangerous situation by preparing you to either run for your life or fight for your life (thus the term “fight or flight”). Fear — and the fight-or-flight response in particular — is an instinct that every (human) possesses.”

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With this in mind I want to know for myself and you can ask this in your own way for yourself as well. Are there things happening right this minute, in a country professing freedom and liberty for all, that are causing us to feel fear in the present? No? Yes? Are there things happening to you or those close to you? Your friends and family, your coworkers and fellow students, parishioners and sports team fans? Are you feeling something different than you did a year ago? What is your level of fear right this moment?

Side bar If you are not feeling any fear but instead irritation at people taking to the streets or protesting the current powers that be, you may be white and privileged like me. Believe me I know. And if you are darker skinned and have a heritage that is not in northern European and you do feel afraid and provoked to fight or flight, I want you to know that this seems perfectly normal from a psychological, reasonable, survival standpoint. Ask anyone. I know all the best psychologists who can corroborate this belief. End Side bar

Ok back to the point. Yes I have a point. I want to know, how do we get white people who seem to have nothing to fear but fear itself, to become angry even to the point of either fighting by standing up as though their lives depend on it or to get out of the way and run allowing those who can and will fight to do the work of staying alive for the rest who are overcome by their fear? What will it take? I ask myself what must happen to awaken me to action? Do I need to see my personal rights violated? Will I need to be personally threatened or can I be just as angry about a friend being threatened? And shouldn’t I be if they are my friend? What about a neighbor? What about a fellow American? What about a victim fleeing for their life?

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There will come a time for each of us in the coming months when you will be faced with these issues. Many of us will need to respond in a moment of anger and fear to take flight and run choosing not to defend ourselves and let the chips fall where they may or to stand and fight for our lives and the lives of others.

I want you to know that I used to believe that I could live my life immune to many of the discriminations faced by many minority groups in my country. But I believe how we treat the least of us says everything about what kind of people we are. So as I reflect on how we enforce our laws, and how we protect ourselves and how we consider our educational system and I see images or read stories and investigate how we treat the least powerful people in our nation (children, minorities, women, others) I am provoked to stand and fight for the lives of people who live in a country that is worth living in, a nation of people who have learned to live and let live, a nation who have moved beyond a history of slavery into an era of understanding and integration, a nation worth fighting for.

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I need to say something that makes me feel powerfully saddened, I no longer believe that this nation exists in the way it once did. It is traveling down a dangerous path. It is a path from which we may not be able to return. But when my fellow Americans choose to threaten other citizens of this country I will be standing in their path, with heart racing, and eyes wide, muscles tensed and ready for action. And Mr Rogers, in my anger I may make some mistakes with the mad that I feel. I, as an adult, am willing to accept those consequences if they help just one person find peace and safety in America. I invite others to stand with me. If you think you have what it takes. And if you don’t, I’ll do it for both of us. I’m willing to bet some others of you will too.

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