Being More (Para) Sympathetic. Or not.

4 Apr

Fight or flight. It’s completely natural. It explains a lot of how we act and interact. A whole bunch of professional trainer types have been talking and writing about it the past decade or so to explain human behavior and, of course, point out how they have the special insights and approach to help you act in ways that manage or overcome this innate tendency. Personally, I think they just want to appear smarter than they really are, because they get to use cool expressions like sympathetic nervous system and adrenal medulla.

So, there’s Norepinephrine (hey, at least I actually started college as a biology major) and then there’s Matt.

Matt is a teenaged Taekwondo student whom both I like and yet want to punch in the head and throw out of classes. Which of those sentiments I feel more depends on the exact second, and it may change second to second. Apparently, Matt wants to get tossed out of classes so, even after enrolling, and two years of practice, and choosing to display good ability and attitude at surprising times, he generally dogs it, really badly. REALLY badly. Embarrassingly badly, for both him and us.

Of course, I imagine thousands of people looking in on class on their TVs via hidden cameras, like a reality television show, thinking, “How can they let him get away with that?” There are, after all, those hidden cameras that allow strangers to watch our lives all the time, because it seems still too often I must resist the temptation to adjust my actions so as to avoid their disapproval, monitoring my life according to the criteria, “What will people think?” But I continually get better at not doing that. Another topic, another time. Back to Matt and us.

Matt’s parents tell me that he would prefer to sit home and play video games. But, he stays enrolled, gets dropped at our door, and goes through the motions (BARELY) of Taekwondo. His parents really want him to be kept in and keep sending him. Why doesn’t he get to decide? Well, his decision would be to do nothing except sit at home and play video games. (Nothing wrong with that on some levels, but again, another topic for another day.) I supposed he COULD somehow quit, but he hasn’t yet. I think he’s trying to push us to make the decision. There are other matters of concern, too, of which I won’t go into detail, but which are motivating factors for wanting to have things work out for him.

I’ve kept Matt in because I’m not sure what to do with him, how to best handle him, with the belief that it can be good for him. He still keeps coming, after all. I don’t want to throw him away until we’ve tried and know we can’t succeed, at whatever we’re supposed to succeed at. I don’t like to fail on a student, particularly a youth. (Fail with other people? Well, maybe sometimes I can live with it; it depends on the person.)

Being nice and encouraging? It works for a few minutes. (Yay! Motivation! Response!) Barking at him or punishing him? Same. The constant nice and encouraging bit doesn’t work for long, so I debate trying a constant bark and punish approach, like a psycho drill sergeant. Crazy tough love and all that.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl discusses how different prisoners would behave in the midst of the horrible conditions and treatment in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl points out that in humans, between a stimulus and a response – between the external stimulus and, perhaps, our innate fight or flight or freeze reaction – there is choice. Choice is what moves us to better places than a pure fight or flight reaction or, perhaps, only seeing, and responding as, black or white.

All of this – Matt’s parents enrolling him and wanting to keep him in, his behavior, how we work with him or whether I choose to invite him out – involves choice. Psycho drill sergeant might work, for a while at least, because Matt might react, experience a bit of flight or flight or fright. Or, it might not work. And then what? Ultimately, if we take it too far, he WILL choose to leave, one way or the other. We’re assuming for now that’s not the best option.

Somehow, he might choose to stay, and live up to the potential we’ve seen.

Fight or flight, black or white. Do class the right way or get tossed out!

Between black and white, we know there are, at least, fifty shades of gray. Maybe one of those shades is the right color choice. Maybe not. But an all black and white house would be ugly. A black and white relationship is, minimally, boring. God created much more than that; have you stopped and looked at the roses recently? Even black and white TVs — like the ones all of those judgmental people are watching us on all of the time – are actually mostly images of gray.

Color is a whole lot better than black and white, even if Matt might not enjoy a different color belt for a while.

For the time being, I choose not to give up on Matt. I choose not to let his action (or lack thereof – ugh.) lead to a typical reaction. Maybe I have to actually tell him that: “Matt, you and I both know you’re jerking us around and hoping you don’t have to be here. But you started this because you wanted to, for some reason. And you’ve got great potential I see. I’m not going to give up on you.” Maybe that’s what he needs to hear. And just maybe (and surely waaaaay too slowly) – Matt will choose differently. Because I chose differently than black or white.

A cascade of better choices, rather than just a cascade of sympathetic nervous system hormones and reactions. All because someone chose to respond to a stimulus differently than normal, than expected. Haven’t you heard it, or said it, often: “I had no choice.” Not true. Not at all.

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