With the thrill of the Olympics still in our short-term memories, I wish to set some records straight. Usain Bolt, Jamaican sprinter, winner of three golds and three world records in the 100- and 200-meter sprint and 400-meter relay: snail's pace.
Michael Phelps, part man, part dolphin, winner of eight gold medals: dog paddle.
These gentlemen, in spite of their incredible achievements, cannot match the speed of human avoidance. Bolt, who likes to boast about being lightning, is a dead bolt compared to our dash from things that threaten us. Phelps is a flapping fish out of water when one looks at ordinary human beings escaping from stressful situations.
Avoidance is that great escape. It is part of the tactics of the biological battle of survival that living forms of all shapes and sizes stage to survive. Many learned in high school biology or psychology classes from the work of Walter Cannon, "Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage." In 1929, Cannon first described the responses of "emotional excitement." He coined the name and gained the fame with "fight or flight."
Flight or fleeing is an effective way to stay alive, to a point. If there is a dark alley, don't go down it. Avoid it. If there are bad people around, turn around and run. If a person is scared to death of falling off a bike, life will continue on foot. The problem comes if avoiding is the only weapon a person has in the struggle of stress.
Sadly, some parents were taught by their parents who were taught by their parents to avoid as the principal method to handle stress. They teach avoidance when the stress generated by a sad child or a lonely child or a hungry child is ignored or deflected by an incompatible response. It is the often spoken phrase, "You're OK," when the child is truly suffering. So when the child grows up he or she avoids the problems just as the parents missed the distress. It is not that they don't care; they just don't know. They just don't get it.
Of course that can be said of a lot of humans and their organizational creations. For example, human-directed companies or governments don't have intrinsic intelligence other than that provided by their human leaders. These leaders have the same emotional and survival techniques as little children. Therefore, human institutions act as do their leaders and creators. They evade and fly away just like the rest of us. They also fight, but that is another article.
For example, this nation has a multitude of challenges that have been recognized for years, even decades. These problems are known to all and ignored by most: Social Security solvency, Medicare's out-of-control costs, immigration reform, addiction to oil, tax simplification, pollution and global warming, infrastructure decay, inner-city violence, drugs, homelessness, the health-care crisis.
So the tension goes up and the Congress and presidents (none of this just happened yesterday) simply avoid. If you think your teenager ditches homework or doing the dishes, just look at how leaders are running this country.
There is also an additional interesting psychology not only of avoidance but the contrast between self-preservation and species-preservation. We are not talking about staying alive to eat and drink and reproduce; the self-survival is about maintaining political power. Fleeing from controversial problems preserves power. Those who are elected often are those whose biology is better tuned to self-preservation than species-preservation.
The dilemma of stress and avoidance is faced by the young soldier in every conflict. When the bombs start bursting in air, do I stay put or do I avoid, flee, and run? It is the survival of the unit that is drilled into each recruit so they will stay and fight the enemy, too often at great costs to themselves. It is the scene from "Top Gun" where Tom Cruise begins to freak out and pull out of the aerial dog fight then re-engages with the great line, "You don't leave your wingman."
It seems our political representatives have left their wingmen, us. They have deserted us. Avoidance also shows up in partisan bickering. One local politico (did I say only one?) pulls the constant line that they, the others, are the problem. Everyone from the '60s on knows that, "If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem." Quit avoiding the truth.So, considering the hurdles in front of us as a nation, we have Olympian-sized challenges, not for gold but for merely finishing the race. So in order for the United States to compete in the global game, we need to quit fleeing and stop fighting each other, but cooperate and stretch for the tape. We don't have .001 of a second to lose.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].