Any time we want to defend the idea of free will, there’s always the Darwinian or the sociobiologist who’s happy to remind us that we’re only here because of a mess of complex conditioned reflexes that were once pretty primitive, but we can sum up with the metaphor of “fight or flight”
I say metaphor because even when we do react instinctively under sudden threat or extreme pressure, it’s not as if we raise our fists, or actually run. The saying points towards a chemical reaction that prepares us to hit back or take to to our heels, but we don’t always do either – sometimes we just freeze. Our brain learns about all these experiences and somehow encodes memories, good ones and not-so-good.
As a therapist friend of mine wrote recently of childhood terrors we’d been discussing (hers and mine), there have been many developments recently in the field of treating combat stress and other extreme situations, none of which was directly relevant to “your dad and others in their trembling selves in the midst of the macho culture or small children hunkered down or frozen drenched in cortisol”.
My dad comes into the picture because I’ve been writing about him for the past year (well, maybe forty years): he was a sailor trained to stay at his post in combat situations when everything in him said “run!”. There is a price to pay for denying the brain’s messages and the flood of chemicals that race through the body when we see a threat – such as a plunging kamikaze aircraft heading straight for us. We decide in the moment to obey some far away order, some basic training dinned into the brain early in the process of handing our wills over to a higher authority (in his case, the Royal Navy). We live or we die in the moment of that decision – but if we live, the threat hasn’t finished with us.
One of his fellow servicemen actually described to me the experience of firing back at a plunging kamikaze plane off Truk in 1945, of the intensity of the present moment, when all that matters is the anti-aircraft gun that has become part of you and hitting that deadly object that wants to hit you.
He and his fellow gunners did just that, the plane was shot down – and suddenly he was standing in small mountain of warm cartridge cases, swamped inside by floods of adrenaline and “shaking like a kitten”.
First came the high and later – the low. Like my father and thousands upon thousands of other veterans who survived, he was alive. But his problems were only just beginning. He had resisted the instinct to run, he had obeyed his training instead; his brain and his body had made a note of this, way down deep and they would make him and his family one day pay.
The biologists are right, partly: we are like animals in many respects, we do have pre-programmed responses and there is nothing the human will can do to change them kicking in – but we can make them behave, for a while anyway. There is a price to pay for not running and hiding (there is a price for those who do, as well).
For the families of such men (and nowadays, women), that cost is living with the later eruptions of suppressed fear and violence, the drinking, the drugs and the gambling, the mental cruelties, the physical abuse – just the sheer suffering of seeing a loved parent, child, or a friend undergo the torture such reactions visit upon them, as primary victims of the intolerable and the insufferable.
Such experiences insult the entire human psyche and cause those who carry such combustible material to want to attack somebody or some thing; firstly and most often, those closest to them; lastly and most intimately, themselves. Suicide, slow or violent becomes a very real option.
Getting help – when you can hardly identify that you need it, until you have either destroyed or seriously impaired all your social support networks – is not easy. It is out there now but in my father’s generation, nobody was either willing or able to talk about it.
And so with him, we relived his war (not forgetting my mother and my grandmother’s wars too – they survived months of bombing and nightly terrors, then daily threats with V-weapons later in the war).
And so, at last, to my tyrant amygdala: that part of my brain, that alarm clock in me that wakes me early with a burst of chemicals, almost as if my father, or some other monster of the night is battering down the door. It doesn’t seem to know (or care) that he’s been dead for exactly forty years today and can hurt nobody.
It doesn’t seem to help me much knowing this, out here here in the world of wakefulness: the clock still says 4.25am, I’m still ready to run as first resort, and I am still in sleep deficit. What is changing is that I am slowly bringing all this into the light, for myself and for others who might be struggling with post-traumatic stress issues.
It isn’t only war and it’s victims. There are plenty of other ways life can organise such results: the text bullying of high school introverts, insane politicians who want to appease rich backers and will happily drive the masses of the poor into more poverty and more joblessness by sending their jobs to even poorer regions, where the desperate will work for almost nothing. There’s plenty of stress still going for free out there. There are even stories of some workers in China so cooped up and oppressed in battery-hen factories that they kill themselves by jumping out of the windows.
Watching the world – if you believed all its bad news – you might almost concede the field to those same Darwinians and sociobiologists who study ants, and conclude the world is a kind of human anthill at war with itself, just to see if the strongest will win in the fight for the crumbs.
I don’t think so: in spite of what my brain is trying to do to me, I’m having a conversation with another part of myself about all this. It relates to what the apostle Paul once wrote about two other great forces at work in the world: the mystery of love and the mystery of evil. I have a choice which mystery I will investigate this breaking dawn.