Bad Instincts

My girlfriend has two yellow Labs. They are the Golden Girls.

Like any Labs they are abounding with energy requiring hours of ball throwing and swimming and walking each week. Some instinct inside of them wants more, more, more.

Lately there's been a troubling development; one of the girls is bullying the other. When we go to leave the house we'll shut the door to their room and hear a low growl, sometimes a yelp. Upon opening the door we'll find the one standing over the other, asserting her dominance and being a complete a-hole.

Naturally, we're concerned about how to handle this, so I went to one of my best friends who lives in a shed in the woods and knows things about dog behavior. Like, Cesar Millan knows things...

At dinner one evening, my dog-whispering friend explained the innate desire for dogs, as pack animals, to know who the alpha is. In the absence of humans this behavior makes sense - one is claiming the alpha position over the other. Before suggesting some things we might try, he emphasized we must accept this behavior doesn't make the aggressor a bad dog. It's just her instincts, he told us.

She's not a bad dog, she's simply being driven by instincts she's unable to realize aren't necessary for her current circumstances.

I'll never forget my first day as a 10th grade English teacher. Teaching humans to write thesis statements at the apex of adolescence is hard enough - try having the last name Pugh and still looking like a 10th grader. It took a while for me to gain my footing and establish control over the classroom. I'll never forget the anger I harbored toward the students who made it difficult for me. I was talking with my mentor one day and she told me the students who gave me the most trouble were the ones most in need of something likely taken from them, or never given in the first place. Hurt people hurt people, she said, it's instinctual when we're hurt to be protective, combative, and defensive.

The resolution in Pixar's Ratatouille comes when the previously cold and scrutinizing food critic, Anton Ego tastes a ratatouille dish, transporting him to the comfort of his childhood and the love of his mother. In this Citizen Kane-esque reveal it becomes clear the meanness of Anton Ego came not from a desire to growl at life, but was rooted in the lack of wholeness the rest of his life delivered. His behavior was simply the instinctual response of someone finding themselves lacking somehow on the insides.

We've been given complex machinery in the form of our lives and never received proper training. No wonder we're scared. No wonder parents mess up. No wonder we convolute missing something we once had with the belief fighting against everyone and everything might bring about the comfort we desire. No wonder we let poorly evolved instincts run the show sometimes.

As I've navigated this work it's become clear most of my internal frustrations are rooted in a belief I'm missing something. I can see clearly now when I decide to hurt others or lean toward defensiveness it's either because I feel something has been taken away from me (respect, trust, opportunity), I'm lacking in some way (potential, ambition, competence), or I recognize these instinctual behaviors in others and I'm repulsed by their combativeness because it reminds me of when I've behaved in such a deplorable manner myself.

How might our interactions and our communities look differently if we learned to see our work to be a gentle guiding of ourselves and one another back home - back toward wholeness and safety?

This is tough to hear when dealing with the most unsavory of people - but I believe the worst approach is separation from each other. It’s easy to just avoid the people you don’t like and ignore those you find frustrating, but division is the root of the original problem. Again, our pain is rooted in feeling removed from a wholeness we once felt; I do not believe anything is solved by dividing us further from one another. We can only become whole again internally when we hear stories from others that sound like stories we've told ourselves - then, we slowly begin to see we're all after the same thing. When we realize we're all after the same thing, we can begin working together to get it.

The beauty is this: This wholeness, safety end belonging we're all after is a renewable and infinite resource.

May we remember our instincts do not make us bad people. May we encounter others in our lives who are hurting and see them as sick people who need to get well.