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Essay

Beware the Reptile . . . Within and Without

By August 1, 2013 No Comments
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Not too long ago I experimented with an outside-of-the-box social media post—or at least outside of my typical posts. I added my name to a petition in support of a politician. I’m not unaccustomed to expressing my political support in this way, but I rarely comment politically on social media since few things elicit such snappy reptilian responses.  But, I thought, what could be the harm? Could discourse with friends and acquaintances devolve so quickly in response to one “thank you” to a politician?” Yes, sadly, yes. Here’s how it went (more or less with some details changed in order to protect privacy):

My original post: Thank you Congresswoman ____________.

Other’s response: Aren’t you supporting injustice and incivility? This whole thing saddens me.

My response: I don’t really interpret it that way. I see this as a matter of human rights.

Other’s response: (too long to quote in full) You disappoint me, Theresa. I expect more depth from you, not gender politics.

My response: I hear your disappointment, and I share your values for respect, safety, and dignity. I also value generosity and seeing and hearing one another fully in dialogue before jumping to judgments about one another. That’s the kind of conversation I’m hoping we can have.

Other’s response: (after describing his perspective on the political matter) You sound more like a feminist political activist than a devoted Christian leader and theologian. As I forthrightly said, I was and am disappointed. I had expected far better. Apparently I was misguided.

My response: (an acknowledgement that lots of theological nuance would be essential to an extended conversation on this topic and a hope for mutual respect and listening in such a conversation)

Other’s response: (six inaccurate statements about my perspective, values, and somehow friends)

Now, to be honest, I might have helped turn the whole conversation in a different direction if I had first listened to this person’s sadness about the political event rather than simply stating my alternate interpretation. I might have nodded toward the ethical complexity of the political debate sooner. But then again I’m not sure it would have made any difference. Because reptiles snap quickly in reaction to their surroundings, and all of us (myself included) can get reptilian. The reptile brain kicks in whenever we experience some sort of threat (real or perceived) and then attack or flee in response. The reptile brain blames others instead of exploring one’s own anxiety. In a split second, the reptile brain can create a long interpretive narrative on the basis of five words from a friend. “Come, let us reason together” does not compute because the instinctual reptile brain overrides the higher functions of the neo-cortex.

Too many of our cultural and ecclesial debates get overrun by human beings acting more like crocodiles than Christ. (See Scott Hoezee’s recent lament.) And I keep learning how to respond rather than react in kind. It’s simple though not simplistic: taming the crocodile within (so as not to respond in kind) and then setting a boundary without. I find these to be crucial life skills and leadership capacities: regulating our own emotional reactivity; helping to regulate those who cannot regulate themselves by setting boundaries in conversations, council meetings, and other events; and praying for God’s wisdom to prevail.  

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