Reclaiming the right to fight, the right to love and everything fierce, you are mine and I am yours, as a survival response
“It is far easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love's absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.”
― bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions
It absolutely startled me, in that good way that meant I softened on the other side, when she explained, leaning in with very focused eye contact, that a fight response is not only about saying no (and she pushed hard and away from her body when she said this), but it is also about saying yes. It’s what she did when she said this that made something inside melt: she reached out, arms open and very strong; she reached for me.
At one point back in the late 1980s, I took an anthropology course by someone who was all about disrupting the colonial history of anthropology. She loved to tell the story of the bonobos. The bonobos are a primate, like gorillas and chimpanzees and humans. The bonobos were not encountered by Western scientists until the early 1900s. This means that all those books about how aggression and war are part of human nature had already been written. The western story of evolution as survival of the fittest was shaping all kinds of things, including eugenics policies in the US. Eugenics policies were being used to justify all kinds of things, including the institutionalization of Black, Brown, Native, poor, disabled, traumatized, queer, trans, and overall resistant bodies by defining them as dangerous. The eugenics movement talked about some of our bodies, these bodies, as inferior, as primitive, as broken, as not yet civilized beyond the aggressive dangerous roots that our other primate ancestors display. And so when the bonobos were encountered along the Congo River, something had to shift. The bonobo are our polyamorous, sex positive, matrilineal, queer and gender disruptive pleasure activists. Like humans, they have separated sexual pleasure from sexual reproduction and it has made for a much more connected group of community members.
It took a minute, as it usually does, for western primatologists to actually see the bonobo. Like all of us much of the time, these researchers were looking for what they already knew without noticing how much those previous assumptions were defining what they could see. It took a generation for scientific studying folks to start to notice that the bonobo were not living a battle-full life but were, instead, using pleasure to move through hard times and stay connected.
And still, when talking about how we survive, loving or reaching for rather than pushing against is mostly left out. Even when it is taught in complex ways, the survival responses are most often taught like this:
Orient: We hear/see/sense something that has the potential of being a threat so we look, smell, listen, skin-sense what is happening around us and also look to notice if we are alone or there are others near who we can group up with. If we perceive that there is indeed a threat, then our nervous system releases a charge to...
Get the hell out of there, either with our people around us or if there is no one safe, then alone. Why keep our lives in the way of threat if we don’t have to? Getting the hell out is a physical thing, it’s moving away, taking a walk around the block, getting in the car and leaving, icing someone, taking your attention away, it can be dissociation, it can mean taking your body away, running as fast as you can away, away, away. The nervous system charge releases through the hormone/muscle/bone body act of getting away. If getting or turning away is not an option, we...
Engage. We fight. Instead of turning away to flee/get the hell out of there, we turn towards the threat. In my day to day life, I most often see this engagement as verbal or social media based rather than physical fighting. That sentence, of course, tells you a lot about me. Engaging is that moment of saying, fine, I can’t get around this, can’t get under this, can’t get away from this, I am gonna deal head on. Remember, this is instinct. The way I am writing this makes it sound like this is a strategic thought out step. It isn’t. It’s a reaction, a response, that happens faster than cognitive planning: lashing out, shouting over a person’s voice, using your authority or will to make someone smaller, pulling the mace out of your pocket and spraying, doing an emotional drive-by, posting trash talk, calling out in a way that turns the other into object, pushing, hitting, screaming, no and no and no again. This is where the nervous system charge goes, that energy again using hormone/muscle/bone body to get bigger. If we can not get away and if we can not turn to engage then we take that charge, that surge of energy and we…
Hold it and wait. This is the freeze response. Freeze is not a chill place, no matter what the word sounds like. It is that vibrating intensity, a massive surge of energy, that is held until it has a place to go. Think of the feeling of anxiety, of panic attacks, of standing in a room where something intense has just happened and everything in you freezes up, waiting, waiting, you can’t move and you are not sure what to do, waiting, waiting. The energy is held because our body (way faster than our minds) is looking for a chance to get away or to engage, looking for an opportunity to let that charge surge forward again and move back into flight and fight, moving through hormone/muscle/bone, our bodies doing what is needed to leave the threat and be safe again. Freeze is meant to be a temporary state, a highly activated pause that can then surge back into movement. However, when the freeze is held too long or when the ending does not come, then we....
Fold. Appease. That charge is moved from temporary status to longer term status. The charge still wants to move, to complete what was started but if the body can’t, then that charge is held, separated from the body in a kind of suspended history moment. And what does the body do? It depends on the threat. The oldest response is that we fold. Folding is what the deer does when the wolf has cornered him and there is no way of getting out of the situation. It’s a gift, a separating from life, from pain, so that the deer, or we can’t feel the moment of our death.. It’s why, when we have sudden massive wounds, people report not feeling any pain. It’s a place of feeling unreal, not in your body, not in your life. Sometimes, we appease. Appease is the work of leaving your own life’s center to respond to and take care of the people and environment around you so that their nervous systems settle and they are no longer a threat. This is different from taking an active and intentional role in doing conflict management. Appease is not consensual, it is instinctual. It comes when someone does not feel that they can get away from the threat and/or do not feel that engagement is possible so instead, they find a way to bring the threat down. And sometimes we dissociate big time, moving through life while this charge is secreted away, not to be seen or heard from until, bam, it is triggered and there we are, living in the past in the present.
Thank god for the survival instinct. Thank god for every ancestor, every member of your kin, who made it through because they had these instincts, you had these instincts to help you.
I told you in the beginning of this piece how startled I was, in that life-giving way, when someone who has cared for and about me, leaned forward, sensing this old held charge in me that wanted to move but didn’t know how to shift, and she said, the fight response is about saying yes as much as it is about saying no.
This fight response emerges into life along with the rest of us. It’s what enables us to inch our way, still attached by the cord, to the nipple where we can then nourish. Yes, we say right after birth, yes, I want to live and so I will fight here. I will push and engage, newly released into gravity, feeling this strange thing called weight and tension and air, I will take my force and my will and I will move towards the yes. It is what happens when we have rituals and traditions that circle around a newly born life and say yes, this life is here, yes we accept this being, we name this being, we will teach them their traditions, their cultures, the meaning of their lives, yes we say, we will fight for you, you are ours, we claim you. It is what happens when we have rituals and traditions that turn to those who are hurting, who have lost, who are not sure if they should still be here, and we find ways to help them know their yes again, as strongly as they know their right to the no.
Right now, many movement people, many healers, many folks who are desiring change spend time talking and thinking about trauma, about survival, and about the ways we build and support and deepen resilience and connection. I am one of them; one of the people who spends a lot of time reflecting on and practicing with these things. Thank god for the wisdom and the shifting happening in communities as a result of weaving this awareness in to how we talk about justice. Thank god we have these glorious necessary responses.
And I have been wondering if how I talk about this; how I bring this in to my bodywork sessions, carries edges of recentering trauma as much as it sometimes carries transformation. Too often, my narrative about survival responses is ONLY a story of fighting back rather than acting like a bonobo. This is what I have been taught to see so this is what I see and then, because this is what I see, this is what I look for and what I create.
Our survival responses are instincts. Some instincts are supported by cultural practice and others are diminished. We are then conditioned into these practices (or away from them) from the minute we are born and then throughout our lives. Reflexes are also instincts. Reflexes are the body’s way of bringing different systems or aspects of our physicality on line at different developmental stages. Reflexes are how we go from floating around in amniotic fluid to being able to jump up in the air and catch a ball. Our ability to push is a reflex. We push against the floor as babies and then raise our heads. We push against the ground and learn to roll over, to come to a seated position, to push with our feet and come to standing. Pushing is a reflex, a physical/emotional/mental reflex that is at the core of how we figure out who we are. An infant is born and does not have a concept of a separate self. Their body, if they are allowed to remain with them, is a continual link with their birth parent. One of the ways an infant begins to know themselves is to push against the body of their caregivers, to feel the difference between I/not I. I push against you and feel the springiness of your skin, the resistance of your bones, the boundary of your body and in noticing this, I come into myself. We do this again and again and again. Think of toddlers going through their no-no-no-no-no stage, young people living, saying, being “you don’t understand me, you can’t understand me, you are not me.” I push against you and feel the boundary of your body, of your personality, of your self and in noticing this, I come into myself.
How much does western individualism absolutely depend on only knowing survival as the push against, this moment of individuation between I/not I?
Let me be super clear: I am super grateful for these instincts and responses that we call the survival responses. This is not a dismissal of the usual way we talk about them but instead, a question around what we are missing. Let me say it again, thank GOD for the survival responses. They are precisely the aspects of our selves that systems of dominance try to beat and imprison and educate away. We have the right to fight back. You have the right to fight back. I am only asking, what else is here?
Pushing is a reflex, but just as powerful is pulling. I pull towards me what it is that I want. I reach for it, feeling myself make connection, with hand or with heart or with both, and then I pull it close. This is what I want, this apple, this piece of music, this insight, this smell, this child in my arms, this lover at my breast, this longing for liberation, this feeling. Pushing is expansion, getting bigger, stretching a line away from us, and pulling is a contraction, a bringing to, an intimacy coming close. We survive because we do both. This I want, yes, this, and this I do not want, no, and no again. Pulling is a moment of combining, with this I am more. Pulling is the opposite of isolation, the base reflex that supports a collective we.
So how do we weave this in to the survival responses I listed above?
Orient: We turn to find out where our people are, we turn to find out our people, our pack, because our chances of survival is always higher when we are together rather than alone.
Flight: We turn towards each other, lifting up those who need lifting, we make a collective choice to turn away from the threat and to turn towards what we want, who we want, and we use everything we have to turn away from what is violent and threatening and towards what liberates us.
Engagement/Fight: We turn towards the threat and we refuse it as a threat. We decide we can’t leave because if we leave, they will only follow us, because we are tired of running, because they are one of us only they became lost, because we have decided to move towards our pain rather than away from it. We turn and engage, pull towards ourselves rather than push away.
Faith.This confused me for a minute. How would I name this waiting place, this suspended place that shows up in the other conversation about survival strategies. I come to the word “faith” not as a religious concept, it’s more about belly trust. About purpose. About that in-knowing that is then shared as the vision of collective culture that says there is more here than what we can see right now but if we wait a bit longer, there will be something we can turn towards again.
I don’t know what is then aligned with the fold/dissociate/appease place. Maybe it doesn’t exist. Or maybe it’s just what culture creates as story, as the telling of our children from one generation to the next that there is something better, something that is coming that will settle in our bones as love that is as familiar and known as the feeling of the air on our skin.
This list is not meant to replace the first list. Not even close. I thank god for the instinct to get the hell out and to push back to stop a threat. I want to keep repeating that, again and again, because of how badly our right to fight has been treated, because we have an entire prison system, a medicalized mental health system, that is designed to take the fight out of a person. It’s just that I am curious about the set of cultural expectations and histories that seems to only tell part of the story. Because I have deep and rageful respect for how dominance culture keeps managing to recenter itself even in times of transformation, I wonder about what or who is served if we think the only way to survive is to fight. Ok, I don’t really wonder.
It was four or five years ago when she turned towards me and said, fiercely and with a lot of love, yes is a fight response as much as no. In the way of those things that change you at the deepest level, her words have been working in me slowly, freshwater springs moving into the underground water table. I still forget a lot, feeling the no come out before thought as a way to figure out the yes. I still forget a lot, being afraid of what is uncomfortable and feels unsafe (whether it actually is or not) and so contracting away so that I am closed off rather than reaching out and, awkwardly and with confusion, reaching for it and pulling it in so that I am still connected and not alone.
There is trauma here, there is cultural and collective wounding. For all of us who teach about and think about and organize around and respond to survival and its edge, there is a yes to pull into the mix. This is not just the suggestion of positive thoughts and positive feelings, but something deeper and far more raw, that place where good sex lets us practice, that place where having children and experiencing those we love being on the edge of death lets us practice. What do you reach for, with full body and absolute focus, this thing you need in your core, like an ache, like a scream, like a deep belly sigh, what and who is the reach for and what and who is the pull, the moment of commitment and clear, the moment of yes, oh god yes, I need this, I need you, I need in order to survive.
* Anytime we talk about bodies, nervous systems, ways of inhabiting a physical emotional mental or any other kind of state, it’s HUGELY important to remember there is no singular standard, no “normative” way of being a body. How we talk - and think - about bodies matters.
I also felt some caution about writing this piece. I see how often and in how many ways someone’s rage or anger, particularly against those who dominate, is shut down. I think of how confused we are about anger and power and claiming without apology. I think of how often we… I can confuse a past experience of abuse that is being triggered with actual abuse that or might not be happening in the present moment. I think of how messy this is, how full of the cracks where supremacy and domination can get in and recenter itself again and again. So this is offered gently, like a prayer, rather than a charge. I know it’s still working on me, sorting through in the underlayers.