Is War Inevitable

Failure is remembered because it leaves a comma instead of period on the cite of a serious decision. That comma questions the way you handled something. It brings higher judgment into play. The mind, the spirit is haunted by that comma, an important task not completed.

I had an unusually rigid teacher for my first psychology class who failed me in a school which claimed to have no grades. The topic was “Is War Inevitable” which I answered using Yeats’ poem “Second coming” to outline my answer. He failed me because I broke the rules of presentation even though my painting teacher, Paul Feeley, begged him not to do it saying I would be greatly hurt. But the teacher was a man who worshiped format and his internal parent demanded punishment.

My failure in Psych One had three effects, the first one good, the second one better and the third one a question that still haunts me. First, I was rejected by the graduate school I would have greatly disliked. They asked me why I failed Psych one. I said I took Psych one again at your school and got an A. They disregarded this with a comment I should dance on the table. It was a distinct clash. End of that school. The second  effect was when I applied to a graduate school that relished creativity. They accepted me. I think the reasons I failed the course helped. The third effect is that I constantly reexamine the question.

A good friend described one band of baboons meeting another in the wilderness and immediately getting into a fighting position with lead baboon at the front. We have an animal brain operating from the start of our lives and a prefrontal cortex which is late developing. The prefrontal cortex often lacks power in the face of an emergency reaction stimulated by our the animal brain called the amygdala  which institutes fight or flight or freeze like a deer in the headlights. The amygdala responds to the emotion of fear as a survival feature which is why it is so powerful.

How much of our urge to fight is caused by our amygdala? How much of our fear is stimulated by messages from those who would have us fight? How much of our fear- stimulated aggression is supported on in the battle field by responses of other troops, some in leadership positions; how much of our aggression is a conditioned response learned in our training (or in early childhood)? Once set in motion, terror stimulated aggression is easy to maintain.

Why do we so easily shift from contemplative beings who are scientific and examine all the features of an event before we act? The answer is fear. Fear is the handle by which the pot of our being is lifted so that our physical and emotional selves are spilled into the fire.

What can we do about it? Our adult prefrontal cortex has to insist on primacy of decision making even when out internal child controlled by the animal brain is screaming fight, freeze or run. We have to know that the animal brain is a part of ourselves. To acknowledge its presence is a step in the direction of control. To disown puts you on the path of surrender. This is why adolescents who  commit anti social acts are not seen as entirely responsible for what they have done by the penal system. Their mind has not caught up with their feelings.

We, have to tell the primitive-animal part of our mind to be quiet before we make a thorough investigation. We have to learn not to listen to its frightened blather; also to not take the first piece of move-to-the front news or hysterical advice that comes our way. Part of having an adult mind is that it has the quality of independence. An adult does not immediately jump in line with its weapon or fist held high like a baboon. It appreciates time. It says “not now” to the internal child screaming at it to react. It looks at the consequences of acting, immediate and later. It makes slow decisions and regards new facts as they emerge. It can make a temporary decision and later change its mind. It makes no decision until its fact-gathering mind is satisfied.

The prefrontal cortex of adult man is essentially free of feeling-generated responses. The group thinker, the one who is propelled into fight or flight or freeze is controlled by an automatic reaction to something presented to the animal self as dangerous.

Yes, sometimes the automatic reaction does save your life. More often, in the big battles and long-lasting wars which kill thousands or even millions, it does not.

Where are your commas? What do you do when you feel afraid? How do you establish the dominance of your adult mind?

One thought on “Is War Inevitable

  1. Elan, this particular essay, Is War Inevitable, has had the most benefit for me right now as I paint a 5′ x 8′ oil on panel with a working title, “War Mandala.” Thanks for some very beautiful sentences here — “Failure is remembered because…,” and “Fear is the handle…” These are sentences that I would like to memorize and use in the right moments. I enjoy reading your essays. Phil


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