I'm on a six-mile run with my dog. Weather is changing fast, as it often does here in Colorado, but lately, it’s been even more unpredictable, one minute sunny, next golf ball sized hail, lightning and high winds that often turn into tornados– in June!
I sense it building, my mind begins to strategize -should I stop here at a populated lake where there might be some form of shelter and others around to wait and see, or take my chances being caught out in the open with nothing nearby to provide protection?
I stop, crouch down with my dog to study the sky’s pattern as well as my inner pattern of sensation, imagination, thoughts, emotions – tuning in to see if I can find some inner GPS to determine next step. I watch as people begin to abandon the beach in pursuit of shelter, life guards wave flags to alert incoming lightning no swimming allowed. I scan for potential protection – I see some outdoor sun shelters all made of metal, the main building torn down, I see a guard shack in the distance and wonder.
The beach is empty now but for one who just arrives hoping to get in the water to train for her upcoming sprint triathlon, (we are determined athletes here in CO), but she's turned away. The winds pick up, the sky grows dark and ominous, and I watch my fear – so vulnerable, so in need of other.
Approaching is one of the 'life guards', a young woman, probably could be considered ‘a millennial’, not so much in 'guard of life' but of policy. She tells me that dogs are not allowed at the lake past Memorial Day. I assure her I am aware and had not come to break the rules but to seek shelter. Well, she says, it’s the policy, and protocol to ask you to take your dog off the premises. I can feel my fear turn to fight, now she the threat not just the storm. I try to reorient us both by saying something like, yes, I understand, protocol, policy, and then there is humanity. I indicate the ensuing storm and need for shelter, “where do you expect me to go?”, she says, "Don’t you have a car?" No, I am running with my dog. I ask her, "where will you go when the storm hits?", she points to the guard shack reserved for those who preserve life.
Hmm, I consider might that be a possibility for us should the storm be big. Of course not, against policy. I again attempt reason, there is policy and there is the emergent present moment of human need, what do you do then? I didn’t language it that way, but you get the drift, (look at how many politicians abandon principles for policy).
The final response to my request for help went like this,
“It’s not on us, you should have known better than to head out in a storm”.
To this my jaw drops. Now I am being shamed, blamed, and discarded in one sentence, (how many marginalized people in society feel this on daily basis many times a day?).
Really? Now I'm angry. I say something like what’s your name, you need to think a little outside the box, is that how you relate to a human need? Then as I walk away, I mumble some profanity, (ah, full disclosure of humanity under threat).
The anger comforts the fear giving it energy and movement that feels like some sort of control.
Just then the woman wanting to train for triathlon comes out of a porta-potty, (as I write realize now that could have been very unpleasant possibility for shelter!), my mumbling turns into out loud account of what just happened - I spew forth my version of the story, I can’t believe what that girl just said to me. . . so she, quite opposite to the impetus of the other, naturally offers both my dog and me shelter in her truck with her kids, their friends, while we wait to see what weather the sky will offer.
My dog, Ella Bell, a one-year old standard poodle still working on meet and greet without knocking you over, jumps into the back seat and behaves like a pro settling down with me sitting next to her, just happy for the connection and diversity of any experience, she is open and willing to unfamiliar experiences, (unlike humans). The good deed stranger sits in front and we begin to discuss the lack of thinking outside the box, the disconnection from human connection, how fear plays a role, how to swim the 750 meters during her triathlon as feet in front kick into your face but still stay steady like a meditation despite the claustrophobic wet suit that triggers a lack of control and safety, (basically the same thing I just experienced in different story).
It was a brilliant conversation. The storm never amounts to much of anything, (more chance to study anticipation and how focus in the present becomes antidote to anxiety). I jump out of the truck following Ella Bell ready to continue on our run and take our chances. I thank her, “you restored my faith in humanity, I will pay it forward”, she says, “you already have”.
As I ran, I felt the ground, the sense of agency, movement toward something and away from something else, hearing the phrase on reverb, “it’s not on us”, “you should have known” and reflected on my lack of responsiveness, my own reactivity and limitations of brain and biology.
So much to study – my own mind, my physiological activation to perceived threat, the process of fear, the impetus to fight, the naturalness of acute stress to cue us to reach to each other, and what happens when that goes wrong, what happens when it goes right.
The rain came, no lightning, no hail, no tornado – just in my mind, body, brain.
“It’s not on us” is a false assumption based upon the perception that we are not related to each other.
It is limited self-protective biological tribalism that denies the stranger. This is natural, not moralistic. It happens automatically, but then becomes moralistic when coerced, stoked, fueled by repeated rhetoric of fear construction. I can make you feel fear, I can then identify the ‘object’ that has caused that fear, then I can offer the answer to get rid of that object, it then a target for attack to give a sense of control and to create your pseudo-safety. Simple. I trigger your biological threat response repeatedly – with fear-based concepts linked to images of ‘that group / those people’ and I have helped you identify the cause of your fear and provide the simple solution to help you feel safe again - annihilation of that which is not ‘us’.
Annihilation comes in all forms, from basic disdain to outright physical harm to death.
Some of you might wonder how did I get from simple storm while running to annihilation impetus between groups – just by studying the weather patterns in microcosm to understand the larger macro patterns - our physiological state in any moment of perceived threat can land us on same universal human pattern - of body, brain, and next behavior. We are constructing this pattern through our perception and translation of the perceptual cues. We can take it apart and reconstruct it, but only if we are present enough to know what’s going on.
This idea that “it’s not on us”, that we are not somehow connected, that there isn’t some implicit ethical standard between us, a natural inclination to care, is simply not true. To act as if it is will cause suffering. It is a contrived territorial principle that is in pursuit of survival of one over the other, not knowing that 'my' survival, literal or within ideas and perspectives, does not exclude or impede the survival of yours. But if we are inculcated with the belief that the only way to survive is to annihilate anything that does not confirm or outright counters our position, we are at the mercy of biological reactivity and those that seek to control our reaction. This is an active strategy to capture our biological reactivity to elicit a predictable reactive behavior that can’t think outside the limitations of the boxes. Simple, Biological, lacking all consciousness and complexity of thought.
You can imagine how this applies beyond my simple story, maybe to the Mexicans at the border who shouldn’t have brought their kids or attempted to enter the united states, they should have known better, it’s not on us what happens to them’.
In work environments, well I did my job, ‘it’s not on me’ what happens to my coworker who should have organized their time better and is late on that project.
“it’s not on us” that climate change is destroying oceans and atmosphere that sustain our life.
“it’s not on us” that there were 40000 gun-related deaths in the United States in 2018.
“it’s not on us” that there were over 7000 reported hate crimes in the United States in 2017.
“it’s not on us” that every 11 minutes someone dies of opioid overdose.
"it's not on us" that as the news feed moves on from the last loss of life someone is doubled over in grief as you read this.
“it’s not on us”_________ fill in the blank. Imagine your own scenario.
I think we all have a chance to realize that if we decided to say “It IS on us”, we might know we are an integral part of a whole system in which my one action harms or helps the integrity of that system, we then might find the true happiness which we continually pursue but never sustain.
The kind of happiness that comes from the daunting awareness of responsibility beyond self-protective hording of pseudo-happiness to a broadening meaningful concern for others. Not blame. Not Shame. But the vulnerable truth that we are all interdependently linked. You matter. I matter. To discover just what happens when I block, and examine how I block this link. When do I become interested in the natural inclination to care, what prompts my ability to engage with the causes of outright harm?
‘It’s on us’ to study the pattern of automatic reaction that excludes concern for others, to know it so intimately that we might see how it’s constructed and how we might begin to dismantle it.
So I do need to correct what so easily came from your lips when I reached for help -
Dear young woman, millennial, life guard, (and all other categories I placed you in), You like me, made similarly, given the right conditions, we will either be at the mercy of biology or
develop skills of consciousness. We each with our own agenda, our own need. My need now is to let you know that ‘It is on us’ to know the pattern of perceptual cues that translate as threat, track the physiological reaction, the behavioral impulse which comes, and the sharp awareness that can ask, just what do I want to develop further – complacent automaticity or conscious choice to respond. Just what skill is needed to ensure that the happiness we both pursue is constructive of a healthy system of our individual selves and the societal system we each make.
We can take back and train in relational care, call it empathy if you will, but I think more than that – a deep intrinsic intelligence, when denied will create destructive storms from which there is no shelter. One thing I know for sure, if I walked by you and suddenly collapsed your intrinsic intelligence would motivate your natural action to reach for me, you would not first ask what is my sex, age, race, political affiliation, or check your calendar to see if you have time, first impetus would be to reach. That is why we respond in collective waves of care when there are reports of mass tragedies. But I have good news, we don’t need to wait for tragedy.
Now we have some heavy lifting to do under the weight of oppressive habits of cultural mind: ‘us them’ themes, repeated focal attention to the negative, reinforcing limited beliefs, onslaught of interpersonal injury, bullying, social media votes off the island, intolerance to diversity, aggressive driving, averting our eyes from each other in stores, elevators, on the walking path, we are lost to screens and devices that limit us from knowing the deep connection in and between Self and Other, and the steady pressure of so much more. But we can train, steady repetitions of lifting the weight that builds the muscle of our inherent good, the scales remembered into the balance of what is natural in us, but only if we realize – “it is on us”.