Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Survival Mode

I was diagnosed with diabetes two years ago. It's been quite a learning experience and it's probably a never-ending learning experience. I now have, for example, sugar dips that can alter my mood. I can get pretty focused about finding my next meal, and maybe a little aggressive in that focus. In those cases, I also experience actual hunger---that stomach-growling feeling. Other times, I may not feel the hunger pangs and, emotionally, it's a quite different experience. In short, I get sad. It's a particular sort of sad, a kind of longing that doesn't focus on food. In one case, I was on a bus, on my way home, and what I experienced was an irrational homesickness, a sad, if impatient, longing to be there already, not 20 minutes away. (Yeah, homesickness from 20 minutes away.)

I think this happened a few times before I realized this sadness that was coming upon me was a need for food. When I did realize what it was, I was kind of relieved and I now knew what to do about it. I find a snack (which I've started carrying in my backpack) and I don't feel sad anymore.

So far into my life, this is the closest I can name as feeling like I'm entering into survival mode. It's a sort of desperation to get some morsel of food in me, but it's also an easily remedied desperation. In general, I have the means to find a snack at nearly any given moment.

I see people in survival mode daily in this big city. From my neighborhood to downtown where I work, homeless people are always present. I see them develop survival instincts that I have never needed. From storytelling ability to being able to pick out who is likely to help to being aware of all the places where they can get a meal, clean clothes, medical attention without insurance or money---I see them being masters of getting through each day.

But it's not only disease and poverty that sends our species into survival mode. You can see it in the CEOs drawing seven-figure salaries who are afraid that a living salary for their lowest paid workers would somehow make their life less livable. You can see it in the elected officials who vote for their own raise in salary but won't budge on minimum wage legislation. This is greed, yes, but it's a type of self-preservation---survival mode---that says living well with less, even living quite well with less, diminishes them.

Which, as many things do, brings me to the Desert Mothers and Fathers. These desert monks and hermits developed their disciplines (sometimes quite extreme by our standards but sometimes in response to their current understanding of science and psychology) as an effort to control what they called "passions." They didn't use the word in the way that we do. We speak of passion as something we're really into (a passion for music) or else sexual desire (a passionate kiss that may lead to other passionate activities). For the abbas and ammas, passion was something else. Passions were everyday things that might get in the way of relationship with God and each other.

In fact, the earliest versions of the list we now call The Seven Deadly Sins were originally called passions. Gluttony was hunger that stood in the way of relationship. Wrath was an anger that rose to harm. Lust was sexual attraction that turned into obsession and objectification. Greed and envy were natural desires for personal comfort or attributes that became harmful to others. Sloth was known as acedia, a sort of detachment, not an entirely bad thing, that was magnified into indifference or lack of caring or suffocating boredom. The worst passion for the desert dwellers was pride, which we today might think of as healthy self-esteem but they saw as considering oneself better than everyone else. They really valued seeing other people as being better than themselves.

So, in short, what we might call normal human emotions and even needs, they saw as impulses to be controlled for the good of other people. It was only through this extreme (to us) impulse control that they felt they could fulfill the gospel commandment to love one another as God loved them.

Standing in the way of their ability to control their passions was, as they understood it, the fear of death. It's the fear that if we don't get enough food, enough sex, enough wealth, we will die.

It is a sort of survival mode mentality that they fought against. They fought it by saying, directly or indirectly, "If I do not have this thing, I will not die." (Or, perhaps more typically, "I have already died in Christ, why would I need this?")

I don't know how to convince millionaires to alter their thinking by saying, "If I only made six figures, I would not die." Really, that's not my immediate responsibility. I've never been remotely near a situation where that would be a personal concern and the abbas and ammas also have a lot to say about judging other people.

But over the last couple of decades, I have actually used this mantra when faced with one want or another, something that I knew I didn't need. I'm hardly an ascetic, but sometimes reminding myself what is and isn't a life and death situation----and I've had very few life and death situations----helps me detach from some wants. My success rate is variable. I'm no role model of self-denial. Still it's a tool I have in my toolbox for when I know I don't need one thing or another.

It is true that there are situations where if we don't get certain things, we will die. If I don't get food at specific times, it's not outside the realm of possibility that I could do real damage to myself due to my diabetes. At the same time, when I am feeling my sugar levels drop, I can also keep myself away from panic or aggression by reminding myself, "I can make it home or to this store or restaurant long before I'm in actual danger. I am not in immediate danger of dying."

It seems to me that we all live as if we're, at some level, in survival mode. Whether it's stockpiling wealth or being unable to resist or just put off a purchase until a better time (how credit cards get us into trouble), we all go around not really believing that we can do without some things and we will not die.

Most of us don't always---or even often---have to be in survival mode. What the ammas and abbas were trying to live was an ethos of doing without so that we might open up to love and service.

This ethos, I believe, can still speak to us 17 centuries later. 

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