March 20, 2023
When I was a young punk, I had this dumb mantra, “Impulse to action!” I believed that any thought that came into my head should be acted on. It seemed “mod” and “vibrant” and “rebellious.” In reality, it was the reflection of how unformed my young brain was. How my prefrontal cortex was not yet able to reign in my limbic system. I was all unchecked impulse and unmoderated action.
What I did that look like when I was 16? Talking my dad’s Monte Carlo and, channelling the Dukes of Hazzard, doing donuts in the fields of rural Georgia and then telling him it got hit in a parking lot (again). By 20, it was less bad behavior and more the belief that I could say whatever thought came into my head without first saying, “Should I say this?” Brain scientists believe the pre-frontal cortex is finally fully developed around age 25, but by that point my “impulse to action” synapses were well worn grooves in my head. My cake was baked.
We live in a culture that over-values the individual (“Me!!!”) and celebrates impulse to action behavior. Carpe diem gets rewritten as permission for road rage and buying stupid crap on credit cards. We can escalate from zero to a hundred in a heartbeat. My own centering of my impulses was a severe case of my white male entitlement. “I’m entitled to everything I want!” When women, BIPOC and queer folks are impulsive, they’re often raked over the coals for being “overly emotional” or “uncivilized.” We all need to calm the fuck down.
So much of this impulsive behavior is linked to our experience of trauma. I know my sexual abuse at age four is wired right into my limbic brain, what we lovingly refer to as our “lizard brain.” Like lizards, our limbic brain works on the fight/flight/freeze option to keep us safe. Lizards don’t ponder their options when an eagle is overhead. They skedaddle. Those of us with trauma histories are often locked into the fight/flight/freeze mode. Much of my life has been some version of looking for a fight, from battles with my little brother to running off to a Ukrainian war zone. I am the master of the knee-jerk reaction and it’s a 4-year-old boy who is doing the kicking.
One of the most important books I’ve ever read on this topic is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies (2017) by Resmaa Menakem. Menakem points out that white bodies carry the historical trauma of the centuries of brutality of medieval Europe and when white people had the opportunity to unleash their unresolved trauma on black bodies, in the form of slavery, they went hog wild. The trauma levied on black people didn’t magically disappear in 1865 and is manifest in black bodies today. The need for African-Americans to make sure white people are OK is one manifestation of that trauma, which ads “fawn” to fight/flight/freeze. Additionally, police carry the unresolved trauma of dealing with traumatized people everyday and act out their trauma on the (mostly black) bodies they are charged to protect. Hurt people hurt people.
Manakem suggests a mindfulness approach to all this drama caused by people acting on their lizard brain impulses. In a fast-paced world, what if we all just slowed down and learn how to soothe ourselves? What if cops, before hitting the streets, practiced meditation and thought about their own thoughts? Maybe instead of cop lizard brains seeing black bodies as a threat and squeezing off a few rounds, they’d calmly assess what was actually needed in that situation. Calming the brain can interrupt micro-aggressions and explosive anger. Think of all those times you fucked up and wished your thinking brain had been in charge instead of your “impulse to action” brain.
This has been a huge issue for me. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard Cher singing, “If I could turn back time” after I did or said something stupid. I apologize and swear I’ll never do it again. Then I do it again. The lizard brain doesn’t think. It just reacts. That baked cake has been my trauma response for over 50 years and has not made my life any better. Worse, it’s driven away the people I claim to love.
So finding a space between impulse and action is now my mandate. Daily meditation has become a requirement. Exercise and yoga, too. Breathing exercises, also. Anything to slow myself down and give myself the space to think before I act. I knew this past Saturday was going to be particularly challenging given the sad turns this marital separation has taken and I meditated six times throughout the day, which kept me from sending angry texts or stewing in my juices on a rare sunny Saturday in Portland. I’m having an ongoing conversation with the 4-year-old me. He can’t drive the car anymore, but he’ll be protected and safe.
There’s a quote attributed to David Bowie that says, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” If I could speak to that younger version of myself, I’d tell him to ditch that “impulse to action” bullshit as soon as possible. Slow your role and calm your soul. Give yourself permission to first see your thoughts and then, the ones that don’t actually serve you, let them go like big red balloons.
And to all the people that are screaming at each other, shooting each other, storming capitols, and hurting each other, please learn soothe yourselves. The lizard brain trauma response that tells you to pop a cap in his ass or street race down Broadway is the same impulse that tells you to text someone that they are a piece of shit or blow off someone’s sincere need to communicate. We can all be better at managing our tendency to cause harm. We have a buffer between our impulsive lizard brain and the mistakes we will later regret. That buffer is our ability to calm ourselves before we choose to act.
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