Updated: Feb 21, 2020
When my son was very young, he would get excited and run around and fall over; then he would hold his breath and go rigid. Until I learnt more about it, I didn’t know if the fall was causing the response, or his going rigid was causing him to fall.
I later learnt these were what are called breath-holding spells. Not knowing about this condition, it was terrifying to watch.
Eventually, a paediatric neurologist explained that it was relatively common and he would grow out of it. It is genetic and related to the fainting gene that my wife has. He advised that fainting was a successful strategy that our ancestors used when facing fear. Sitting around the campfire and along comes the sabre tooth tiger, some ran, some fought and others involuntary played dead. All these three strategies worked to varying degrees, as the responses are still part of our DNA, and have all contributed to our survival. In these life and death situations, it appears that survival was for the faint-hearted after all!
Psychologists often speak of the two common responses to fear, buried deep within the limbic part of our brain, the amygdala, to be either flight or fight. But there is a third response that is often not mentioned, but it is the most common response. Freeze. The involuntary fainting response.
There is a strong correlation between the automatic responses to fear and the choices I face.
Eckart Tolle wrote in The Power of Now;
If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of those three options, and you must now decide. Then allow the consequences.
If I am aware of this and make it the basis of a mindset that becomes part of my conscious and unconscious thinking, I tend to be more content, and happier in my day to day life.
Tolle goes on to point out that there isn’t always three choices, and sometimes there is only one. Take, for instance, a person in prison. This person only has one opportunity if they wish to be as happy as possible; Acceptance. Of course, a convict might fight the system with constant appeals or might try to escape. Both of these options are long term, with varying chances of success. But in the day-to-day, the only real choice is acceptance.
The flight response is walking (or running — or trying to escape ) away, to fight to try to change the situation, and freeze is acceptance.
This concept is very similar to the message contained in the Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr around 1934, and adopted and popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous.
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!
This prayer is so elegant and straightforward, but often challenging to achieve.
I always have a maximum of three choices.
Choices about what to focus on and what to create are part and parcel of daily life. A quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Nothing will come of Nothing, has always struck a chord. It was quoted in an article about the great Australian artist Arthur Boyd, where he adopted a version of it as a daily mantra each morning as he faced the blank canvas. Every day he made a choice to create, knowing that if he didn’t start, there would be nothing. For me, it is an excellent reminder that even a great artist like Boyd had to keep the choice to create the front of mind. Over the last few years, my painting habits have lapsed a little, but in the previous six months, I have made the conscious choice to create art as part of my daily practice. This regular exercise helps me focus my thinking and energy on all the other aspects that make up my creative practice, many of which are not artistic. It helps me get clear on what to let go, what to change or modify, and what to accept as is. It also gives me a sense of satisfaction, particularly on days when the wheels are spinning and nothing seems to get done.
There is an old saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. While a cliche and an oversimplification, it demonstrates the choices in life. Of course, I could make the lemonade, refuse the gift, or graciously accept them and stick them in a bowl, then dash off a little watercolour. Or I could sit there and marvel at the colours! I chose the watercolour, and now I can marvel at the colours long after the lemons have gone.
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