Paper Tigers

There is this fascinating theory by an anthropologist from at UCLA where she states that human beings co-evolved with snakes. Throughout evolutionary history, predators and prey have co-evolved. This is seen with bears and their prey. Bears have become faster and better capable of running down deer, where deer have developed a keen sense of hearing and quick reflexes that allow them to hear and then avoid the potential bear. The same thing, apparently, happened with humans. Snakes were the predator that preyed on us as we evolved, and so we developed defense mechanisms such as being able to better recognize patterns in the lower half of our eyesight than the upper, and when startled, flinching to cover our vital spots (maybe, if snakes were the thing that primarily saw us as prey when evolving, this is why the snake is seen as such a terrible creature throughout history i.e. bible, literature, folktale).

Now, obviously, other predators have attacked us throughout history. Tigers, bears, lions, dragons (metaphorically), and even other humans. When put into a situation where we feel our for the immediate safety of ourselves, our adrenaline spikes and our cortisol goes through the roof. Our high level processing capacity shuts down, and our bodies go into survival mode, or flight or flight (or faint) response. Understandably, if you're about to be a tiger’s lunch, processing about the meaning of life seems a lesser priority than using your energy to run as fast as possible.  The response makes sense when we see it like in this lense. When, there is in fact, a real tiger.

Where I am going with this will make sense in time, I promise. When our ancestors are trained that in an instant you can become the snack of a predator, it is no surprise how quickly this response takes hold. When we are faced with danger, we react in, what seems like, an appropriate manner to keep us safe, to fulfill our main goal: survival.

But, what about when the moving in the bush is just our companion? What about when the leaping towards us is a cat instead? Is the response still justified? Can we blame ourselves for the internal reaction we are then manifesting? Because, truthfully, in the split second where bodies must prepare for survival, how were we to know whether it was a tiger or a cat? How do we know whether we are turning the corner into a spider’s nest of death, or a warm embrace of a friend? When every corner holds within it endless possibilities, and when we have already seen the danger of tigers, how are we not supposed to react in a manner that is appropriate for the highest level needed for survival?

Now, obviously today we don’t have to worry (mostly) about tigers or bears, or other predators jumping out at us at any time. So, our fight or flight (or faint) response should stay dormant and prepared for only the most necessary of times, right?

Sometimes, in my field of work, I see children who behave in outrageous ways. They run and scream and cower and beg and cry and punch and crawl and manifest behaviors that seem wildly inappropriate for the current situation. Often, a coworker will think, “I just asked this child to stop running, why is he now cowering and crying?” I see children who, despite turning the corner into the arms of a friend, react as if they turned the corner into a tiger, and the question is always, why?

See, it seems our behaviors are only tactics for survival. Everyone behaves in a manner that they think will allow them to survive and to avoid suffering. Looking through this lense, it is apparently obvious why people steal, or fight, or why my children scream and run and cry. We learn the behaviors that have allowed us to survive in our past environments, and then we hold onto them as defense mechanisms.

Our ancestors learned how to react to tigers, so even when they found themselves in areas without tigers, they still held onto, and manifested their defense mechanisms at the sign of danger. It was a survival tactic. So what if we look at tigers as things that hurt us? Things that betray, beat, or physically or emotionally mangle us? If my children are manifesting behaviors that look as though they are running from tigers, where did they learn how to run from tigers?

If my children cower when I reprimand, or cry when I discipline, where did they learn this response? If all actions are out of a basis for survival, why did these actions get learned? If we are taught that disappointing meant being beaten, or loving and trusting meant being betrayed and hurt, wouldn’t the obvious survival answer be to avoid disapproval, and avoid trust and love? Therefore, if I had a child who learned that when their father disapproved of their behavior and reprimanded them, that meant pain (in whatever sense), wouldn’t that child then aim to avoid situations like that? Which would make sense why, when put into a similar position where I am reprimanding the child, the child would experience a fight or flight (or faint) response, and behave in the manner that has previous avoided harm? In the same sense, if the child learned that rustling bushes meant a tiger (which meant pain), everytime something moved in the bush, the child would see pain (and react accordingly).

Our behaviors, whether withdrawing, internalizing, getting frustrated, getting violent, crying, etc, are learned traits that at one point were necessary for survival. The issue isn’t the issue itself, but that now, in this new environment, those traits are maladaptive and no longer needed for survival. So how do we learn to let them go? How do we not see every bush as a tiger, or every love as a betrayal, or every conflict as pain-inducing? How do we not cower when reprimanded, or withdraw when hurt? How do we see that what we have as survival tactics are now not allowing us to survive (oh the irony). How do we see that, despite forming the connecting between love and betrayal, withdrawing from love for a survival purpose is actually leading to more pain in the long run?

If my children react to tigers everytime they see a corner, how do I teach them that there are often no tigers (while keeping them able to react and survive the tiger attack when it inevitably comes?). If I go into fight or flight (or faint) response whenever I find myself on the precipice of vulnerability, how do I let go of past defense mechanisms that were once needed for survival? How do I teach, and in turn learn, the difference between a real and a paper tiger? Because they warrant difference reponses.

The issue as I see it, is that it seems that once you’ve been attacked by a tiger, there comes with it a future inability to distinguish between, and in turn react differently to, real, harmful scenarios, and imagined, harmless ones. (Tigers in this sense can be literal, but also metaphorical). As our ancestors did too, we have developed defense mechanisms to protect us, but what happens when they go too far? What do we do when we can no longer tell the difference between a real tiger and a paper tiger? And, with that, how do we teach ourselves, and our youth not to flinch everytime we turn a corner into the unknown?