The Fight or Flight Response

Level Ground had the pleasure of working with Reverend Shari Brink during the NYC Road Show last month. We are honored to share with you her reflections on what it looks like to practice living in difference within her denomination, the Reformed Church In America.

May you feel inspired, hopeful, and encouraged to practice such staying power within your own communities, congregations, and families. 

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In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term “fight or flight response” to describe a reaction that we human beings have in common with the animal world.  It describes our instinctive reaction to either “fight” or “flee” in the face of a threat to our survival.  He described the actual physiological response that causes, say, a cornered cat to scratch and hiss or a gazelle to high tail it away from a lion.  

I’ve been thinking about the ways we human beings experience some version of this when we encounter people who are different than us.   It’s easy – especially in the midst of any form of difference that could be a source of conflict – to respond aggressively (“fight”), to withdraw (“flee”), or perhaps even to simply “freeze.”

There is a reason so very few churches are truly diverse and inclusive.  It feels threatening!  Encountering diversity is challenging, including differences in our deeply held views and beliefs about right and wrong.  We know all too well how warring factions can respond to differences over political issues like healthcare or immigration, or to religious issues like the interpretation of scripture.  And we’ve had plenty of bad role models.

Recently, I had the privilege of experiencing a positive model.  I had the opportunity to participate in a Reformed Church in America conversation among people who hold widely divergent views on sexual orientation and gender identity.  Though far from “pain free,” we didn’t fight, none of us fled the room, and all of us felt listened to.  It sounds like a minor miracle, right?!

It caused me to think again about the practices and ways of being with each other that help us understand each other more deeply, to not fight, to not flee and to not freeze.  Here are some thoughts:

  • Listen deeply to others without preconceived ideas about what they will tell you.  Be willing to let go of caricatures based on what you’ve always been told and engage your curiosity about the real person you’re talking to.
  • Be willing to be vulnerable and share your own experience.  Life has taught you some things.  Make sure you give people an opportunity to understand what it’s like to be you.
  • It’s ok to take a point of view AND to listen to those of others.  We can do both.
  • Make room for others to continue to disagree with you, knowing that their conscience has been formed based on a lifetime of experiences.
  • Don’t use language that is inflammatory.  Listen for how they speak about their own experience and speak for yourself in ways that honor who God created YOU to be.
  • Imagine yourself as in a circle with people who have a wide range of experiences and points of view.  There are rarely only TWO sides.  Arrange your chairs to reflect this.

What would you add?  What helps you to stay in a difficult conversation?

God has given us the wonderful gift of being a diverse and inclusive community of God’s people.  Let’s enjoy what we have… and continue to expand and deepen it!