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  • Foto van schrijverPieter Derycke

Don’t be afraid of pain/challenge - part 4 - lessons for life

This won’t really be a blog on pain, but I'll continue the same line of thinking as the three first parts (see part 1, part 2, and part 3), namely the ever present tension between safety and risk, between security and exposure. Now, this tension is not only interesting in the clinic, but it has significance for life in general. It is not my purpose to give unsolicited advice, nor is it my style, but I’m going to sketch an evolutionary picture that could be helpful to understand some things in life…

Music for todays blog (probably a bit more challenging for most, but this fits the theme): Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

Let start with one of the most ancient biological questions: avoid or approach? Probably, from the time our primordial ancestors started moving, this question was ‘on their mind’: is it safe and can I explore, or is it a threat and do I need to take safety measure?

Through evolution by natural selection, organisms got better and better at making these decisions. They got better at scanning the environment, they improved in decision making, and their actions and movements got more effective and efficient. Somewhere along this way, a nervous system evolved, and eventually brains originated.

Paul Rozin speaks of the ‘omnivore’s dilemma’:

“Brains evaluate everything in terms of potential threat or benefit to the self, and then adjust behavior to get more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Animal brains make such appraisals thousands of times a day with no need for conscious reasoning, all-in order to optimize the brain’s answer to the fundamental question of animal life: approach or avoid?”

"The "omnivore's dilemma" is that omnivores must seek out and explore new potential foods while remaining wary of them until they are proven safe. Omnivores therefore go through life with two competing motives: neophilia (an attraction to new things) and neophobia (a fear of new things). People vary in terms of which motive is stronger […]”

This dilemma is exactly what I’m talking about. And I’ve talked about the terms ‘neophila’and ‘neophobia’ before (click here). I encountered them prior in the 1967 book ‘The Naked Ape’ by biologist Desmond Morris.

People differ in their preferences, some are more attracted towards security, others are more prone to exposure, most are probably somewhere in between. And typically, if you find your preference on one side of the continuum, you don’t understand why some people like the other side better…

Let me use some other terms to describe both ends of the continuum, and you’ll probably understand why some find one end more alluring and others are more attracted to the other end:

  • security – risk

  • order – chaos

  • familiar – unknown

  • stability – instability

  • stasis – motion

  • constancy – flux

  • same – new

  • conservative – progressive

  • home – adventure

  • closed – open

  • stagnation – exploration

Now, there’s no one part of the continuum that is better! Both parts are necessary for a system to be adaptive, flexible, and healthy. In some cases, there’s more need for security, for stability, to do the things that are familiar, to stay at home, to stick to what’s tried and true. In other cases, trying new stuff is important, looking out, being open to experience, moving away and exploring is what’s best. There is, depending on the context, an optimal zone to be in (I prefer using the term ‘zone’ over ‘position’).

Too much security:

It is important to have a secure base, a place to start, a comforting group of people to rely on, a home to come back to. But too much security is detrimental. First of all, perfect security is an illusion. Secondly, most things that are worthwhile have inherent risk, yes, life itself is fundamentally risky. Risk also implies: chance. A chance for change. As the philosopher Alan Watts puts it:

“There is a contradiction in our desire to be secure in a universe whose very nature is fluidity and movement… If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness that makes me feel insecure. In other words, the more secure I can get, the more I shall want…”

Here Watts already points to a problem: the search for security can lead to a kind of vicious circle.

Not enough security:

Of course, too much risk taking will lead to problems. Enthusiastic exploration is great, but if you always jump heedless into every project, make impulsive decisions, you will rush headlong into disaster. Reluctancy, fear, being thoughtful is appropriate at times. The universe is not always friendly…

What's the point of this story?

This all seems quite obvious. The point I’m trying to make, similar to the ones in the previous posts, is that our inherent, innate need for safety needs to be balanced by exposure. In our ancestral past, this was the ‘natural’ situation. In our modern world, we have eliminated many risks. This, at first, was most probably in our advantage, but I think that lately, we tend to go too far, with the problems Alan Watts predicted as a result: on average, people are becoming more and more insecure, less flexible mentally, more anxious, worse at finding adaptive solutions for the problems at hand, less creative in a world that, more than ever, is in need of ingenious and inventive solutions.

The most obvious decline in exposure in our society is the exposure to the physical threats our organisms faced in the evolutionary past: movement, sometimes vigorous, in a natural and complex environment, cold, heat, hunger, thirst, predators, … The relative lack of these physical challenges not only make us less fit and nimble, but also less flexible and adaptive mentally and emotionally.

New challenges

Humans have lived in all kinds of environments, with almost only one unchanging factor: other humans have always been part of the environment. And while these other humans are probably the most important source of safety, living with other humans is also challenging. Maybe these kind of social challenges are increasing in our modern world? Granted, the risks of being abducted or murdered are very low, so we shouldn’t be too afraid of these hazards (but we are, somehow). I was thinking of other challenges: living in cities and states brings its own kind of challenges (compared to the relatively egalitarian life of small band hunter-gatherers). And more recently, the arise of the information age, where you learn all the bad things that are happening all over the world. Let us not forget the new and uncharted territory the social media are putting us in. We gullibly adopt these technologies, but they put us in a position with at least some drawbacks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all suggesting that we should all jump into adventures and challenge ourselves constantly. I’m mainly implying that our ‘resting’ position on the continuum has shifted too much to the comfort side, at least for a group of stressors (effort, cold, heat, hunger, thirst, oxygen depletion, maybe also for microbial and other ancient biological stressors). And that some stressors (the social ones) could be pulling us too much, or for too long towards the challenging side of the continuum.

This knowledge is especially relevant for people who are stuck in a dire situation. For them, it’s probably a good idea to shift from neophobia to neophilia, from risk-averse to opportunity-seeking. Not trying anything new will bring more of the same bad stuff. Trying an unexplored path maybe risky, but if you explore carefully, good things may emerge!

And, yes, I know that this is not true for all people out there: some people still have physically demanding occupations, some people have the adventure mindset, some people do get their fair share of exposure. But still my story applies to many in the modern world (you know who you are, 😉).

(as an aside: if you are a parent, don’t make the world as safe as possible for your children, only make it as safe as necessary. Children need to be challenged to grow!)

“Walk the line between order and chaos”, is a good catchphrase, which I probably picked up somewhere. Maybe it’s not a line, but a zone, but you get the point. And, by the way, there’s a fantastic ‘modality’ that sits perfectly in that zone. Can you guess? It is true for all humans, but especially for children. Yep, play and playfulness!! In play, you leave secure grounds and venture into new territory. You explore the world and yourself, both the body and the mind. You experiment with unknown situations, with open ended questions. You move through chaos, but with a firm secure base to rely on. Yes, there are risks, but there is much satisfaction to be gained.

Think of the following situation: A child is standing on a rock next to a cold little mountain stream. On the one hand the water surely will be refreshing and the jump seems like fun. On the other hand, the water looks really, really cold and the jump appears quite scary. Can you see the conflicting emotions on her face and whole body. You can almost see the pulling actions of the safety-mindset and the call for adventure and fun battle it out on the child, each of the forces almost cancelling out each other. Which one of the forces will win? Will the child jump?

There’s a famous prayer that is very applicable to this blog: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Jonathan Haidt (in ‘The Happiness Hypothesis) on this prayer:

Wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation (changing the self to fit the new environment), shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new environment).”

That seems a good summary to end here…

May you be wise!




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