One recent afternoon I was at my desk when our office supervisor came to my door.
“Sorry to bother you,” she said, “but there’s a snake in the hallway. I really don’t like snakes.”
I should mention that my place of employment is an ecospirituality center located on seventy acres of prairie and woodland, where all creatures are treated with care. Ross Perot once said: “When you see a snake, you kill it. You don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” Where I work, we don’t kill the snake – but our snake committee is ad hoc and made up of whomever we can find who is willing to handle the critter.
So, I followed my colleague down the hall, where we found the small snake nestled behind a recycling bin. I’m not afraid of snakes, per se, but I prefer to know what variety I’m dealing with before I reach down and pick one up. This little guy didn’t look familiar to me. So we called in a third accomplice to help us remove the approximately 10-inch snake.
Tools were gathered: a dustpan and a flyswatter. The reptilian interloper was ushered into the dustpan, the flyswatter engaged in an attempt to keep him there as we carried him through the center. But the agitated snake just wouldn’t stay safely put, and kept wriggling off the dustpan and onto the carpet only to be scooped up again. Eventually, he was half carried, half shooed out the front door. He encountered a doorstop embedded in the cement front porch and promptly reared up and struck at it with his fangs before sidewinding his way into the grass.
Poor little guy! He couldn’t tell we were trying to help him, he only knew that something outside his control was happening, and he was working desperately to regain control of the situation. His reptilian brain flooded his body with “fight or flight” messages, with fear. To no avail he tried fleeing from us, and fighting with the doorstop. Had he been able to relax and allow us to move him he would have experienced less trauma.
I started thinking about how like that little snake I am.
I thought about the many times I have found myself somewhere physically or psychically unfamiliar, and responded from my own reptilian brain. The first time I drove alone from Iowa to New Mexico so visit family, I remember being afraid to leave my hotel room in a small Colorado cow-town after dark – and ended up going without dinner. The next morning, driving (hungry) through open expanses of landscape, very few other vehicles on the road and no towns in sight, I had an anxiety attack of epic proportions. When the trip ended safely and without mishap, I regretted my inability to relax and enjoy the drive, passing instead of stopping at the new sights I saw from the safety of my locked vehicle.
Or the many times my fear of unknown outcomes held me back rather than stepping forward. Why didn’t I engage with that awesome nonprofit I discovered? Or go for another graduate degree, this time in library science (I mean, really, I might have been an awesome librarian)? How many events did I skip because I couldn’t imagine the discomfort of those first ten or fifteen minutes after walking in alone?
Yes, little snake, I was totally picking up what you were laying down!
There is a major difference between myself and a reptile though – my brain is capable of contradicting the rush of fight or flight adrenaline. I have evidence, in the form of experience, that tells me I don’t have to strike out or run away.
A few years ago, I had occasion to travel to Philadelphia for a conference. In order to get a great airfare, I needed to travel early, so I had almost two full days to explore the city by myself before the conference began. Remembering past experiences, I was prepared: I brought lots of reading material and work I could do from the safety of my luxury hotel room in the city center. But in the cab from the airport, I found myself eagerly drinking in the sights of the city, and made a resolution that I would not spend my time cowering in my room. I dropped my luggage in the room, and set out walking. Those two days entering into the energy of the city, walking to every famous landmark in town, eating in cafes I discovered down side streets…they were amazing. I have a treasure trove of photos and memories to remind me that, when I relax and allow new experiences, amazing things can happen.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I practiced stepping outside my comfort zone almost daily. I pushed back against my inner reptile with consistency and intention. I met so many amazing people – the kind of people you look up to and are inspired by, and the kind you can laugh with and share your secret soul with. And while the days were not always easy, not a single fear proved to have the power my brain wanted to give it. Every hurdle, every obstacle, was climbed over, sidestepped, punched through (often with the help of friends) – and not one would have been worth the loss of running away.
Even though I know better, I still have to wrestle with that little snake in my brain that wants me to be ruled by fear whenever I am not in control or am facing something new. Seeing that live representation of my internal struggle playing out on the dustpan and carpet that afternoon helped me realize something else. Not only do I have experience to teach me that I can work through the fight or flight urge instead of giving in to it. That little frightened snake helped me see that the part of myself that urges the fear is a tiny little wriggling thing. I could as easily step on it and squash it as listen to it.
As I said, however, here we treat things with care. That includes ourselves – every part, even the wriggly scared reptile parts. What the snake is teaching me is to stop fighting that fearful part of myself and, instead, teach it to relax and allow. Relax into the knowledge gained through a lifetime of experience that fear and loss of control are false prophets of doom. Allow experiences and people, especially new and unexpected ones, to grace my days and enrich my life. Just because I don’t know what comes next is no reason to run away or get poised for defensive action. Just because I feel that fear doesn’t mean I have to berate myself, either. It IS a part of me, and it isn’t going to sidewind itself out of my brain.
Thank you for teaching me such important lessons, little snake!