There’s a lot of punditry going around about how the Dems just don’t have the “killer instinct,” or how they are “squishy,” or how they’re full of touchy-feely platitudes. Of course the Repubs will steam-roller over everything because they know how to talk directly. To the amygdala.
The amygdala is a little structure located deep in the bottom central area of the brain where your head hooks onto your neck. Once I read a pithy little self-help article about anger management. It recommended that when steam is about to shoot out of your ears in a fracas with mate or kids, do something, anything to break the tempo. Deep breaths, leave the room for a count of ten, whatever. But the best, most memorable way I heard it expressed was “Don’t get hijacked by your amygdala.” That stuck with me.
The amygdala is an ancient part of the brain structure, sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain,” and it’s part of a team. The cerebellum handles basic functions: breathing, keeping a heartbeat, organizing the muscles to do stuff without falling over. The hypothalamus plays our hormones like a piano, the hippocampus gives us memory, the thalamus organizes sensory inputs and sends that info to our our computing brain; the pons seems to function as the switchboard operator for all these messages and is a key element in dreaming. And the amygdala? It’s the structure that functions as the fire station siren: when it goes off you run like hell or go postal. It triggers a spurt of adrenaline before the conscious mind can make any kind of decision, and when it works overtime it gifts us with fear, anxiety, stress, and panic attacks.
Adrenaline speeds everything up. Early in my life I developed a pattern of leaving stuff until the last minute, waiting for the fear to kick in, then pulling it all off on an adrenaline high. I needed the fear. It was uncomfortable, it kicked me in the gut, but I relied on it. I wasn’t part of a community, I was solo and vulnerable, and it took years before I began to understand how to reach out, connect, and accomplish things in a gentler and more pleasurable way.
Music camp. Ensemble theatre. Quaker Meeting. Bonding with a lover. These were a different kind of high, and they all took time and the courage to release the tight defensive boundaries of a fearful self. Not an immediate kick in the butt: something deeper and more productive. It doesn’t deliver like Amazon Prime.
On the other hand, hate delivers and delivers fast, especially if it’s in a crowd. It’s a short-cut to the amygdala and it is powerful. No thought required. How do we reach out to offer something different, something better? How do we become effective against the power-hungry steamroller? I see a lot of commentary suggesting that we need to hit the fear button ourselves, to warn that we face a collapse into fascism, to enlist the amygdala in our own progressive efforts. But is fear that different from hate? If our human world can only be shaped by the owner of the rowdiest amygdala, how will we ever extract ourselves from this strait-jacket of aggression?
I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m worn down by the street-eaters and graders that will give us a better Pleasant Hill Road. Their gargantuan machines roam up and down gargling subsonic rumbles, which freak the cats, but they freak me too. (It’s wired into us.) I want to believe that somehow we will bumble our collective way to a world of more peace and quiet and comfort. How can we advertise that the world of the fist is not the way?