What are you looking for? | #2

Hi, I’m Hugh Hollowell, and this is Hopeful Resistance, a little email about how we change the status quo without losing our soul in the process, sent every Friday for the foreseeable future from an underground bunker self-quarantine.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankel, a survivor of the Holocaust death camps, talks about how, as humans, we are not obligated by instinct to respond to stimuli with our first impulse. Rather, it is our privilege to be able to insert a pause between the stimulus and our response. And contained within that pause is the potential for our freedom.

If someone trips us as we walk down the aisle of the bus, we don’t have to lash out and attack them, like the dog who bites you when you step on its tail. Instead, we can pause, and ask ourselves if their tripping us was an accident or not. We can take into account the crowd, and the unlikelihood of anyone on the bus wishing us intentional harm and then we can stand up and move on with our lives.

Unlike the dog, we really have two brains that evolved at different times.

The oldest parts of our brain want to keep us fed and safe. Because of this part of our brain, you don’t have to be reminded to breathe, or to sweat when you get hot, or to find food every day. This brain is where instinctual impulses come from, the so-called 4 f’s: Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and, uh, the urge to reproduce.

The newer part of our brain inserts logic into the equation and can tell us that yes, strangers walking up our driveway could be a threat, but since this is the mail carrier, we can ignore the threat and smile and wave instead. If you think about it, much of what we call manners is just socially agreed-upon ways to overcome our instincts.

So our old, instinct-based brains are constantly looking for threats, and our new, rational brains are constantly talking our old brains off the ledge. We are creatures that thrive on data, and so it is incredibly important that we pause and parse the data we are being given.

Mr. Rogers famously told us that, during times of crisis, we should look for the helpers. Why? Because during times of crisis, our old brains are prioritizing the bad news, in order to find potential threats. By telling us what to look for, Mr. Rogers helps us overrule our instincts and allows us to look, intentionally, for what was always there, and then we can find it.

* * *

A friend of mine is the most optimistic, upbeat person I know. It’s almost scary how upbeat she is. She has spent the last 10 years or so working in and around homelessness, and is a force of nature, getting politicians, businessmen, and everyday folk to do extraordinary things to help the people she works with.

I once asked her what the secret to her optimism was, and she said that when she wakes up in the morning, she tells herself, “Today is going to be a great day!”. Then she said, “But then, Hugh, and this is the most important part, then I spend the whole day looking for evidence that I was right. And I usually find it.”

* * *

What does any of this have to do with resistance? Or change? Or even surviving this week in self-quarantine in the house with your kids?

Everything, actually.

The other day, I went to the grocery store. Like many grocery stores during the time of the coronavirus quarantine, some of the shelves were stripped bare, and the store employees were looking bedraggled and tired as they tried to keep some sense of order as people left huge messes in their wake.

My first reaction was to stand agape at the bare shelves and the mess, and I felt anxiety stirring within me. Should I grab more bottled water? Do I have enough toilet paper? Are these 4 cans of tuna enough, or should I get all of them?

But I took a pause and a deep breath and asked myself what was there, but I wasn’t noticing? What is my brain filtering out?

That was when I noticed how calm and polite the other shoppers were. That was when I noticed the man on his hands and knees looking at the very back of the shelf for an elderly lady. It was then I noticed the stockers, putting the new stock on the shelves, and who were still working despite the very real risk they experienced by their coming to work. That was when I noticed that the shelves weren’t really stripped bare, but were just, for the most part, low. I was able to get everything I was looking for, although I did have to get more expensive brands in some cases than I normally buy.

In short, it wasn’t as bad as my brain was telling me it was. My short-term anxiety was irrational. In fact, after my pause, what I felt was overwhelming gratitude for the workers who were keeping the shelves stocked.

On that day, both before and after the pause, I found what I was looking for.

And so will you.

You can listen to the audio of this essay here.