The War of Animal Instincts
Recently, I remarked to my sister that I attract people with difficult pasts that can make their minds unstable. My good friend Mary is a Catholic, with the usual guilt, and has severely alcoholic parents. Every time we talk we’re amazed at how much we understand each other. My friend Angie is recovering from an abusive marriage and the recent death of her parents. She is a single mom struggling to overcome the demons in her past. After just a few conversations with a new friend, Stephanie, she poured out her heart, admitting that she suffers from depression, with other associated issues, and doesn’t stay on her medication. Laura, who was sexually abused by her father throughout her childhood, as were her sisters, is one of the friends deepest in my heart.
My sister laughed off my declared tendency to attract dysfunctional people but then several months later, after I had forgotten about it, in seriousness she said, “I think you were right when you said that you attract unstable people. Why is that?”
I wonder now if it is really that I subconsciously seek them out, because they understand my inner workings, and I understand theirs. In an effort to broaden my circle of friends and to help those of you who are stable to understand those of us who are unstable, I crack open this cold, scary vault of my heart’s past.
As a child I did not have the traditional Mormon upbringing, although when people find out that I was raised in the church they assume I did. I hesitate to write this because I don’t want to hurt my parents’ feelings; they did the best they could, and continue to strive for better lives. The fact remains that much of my childhood was painful and confusing. As children often do, I turned pain and confusion inward and assumed that something was wrong with me. In whole or in part I was convinced of my utter defectiveness.
Hitting rock bottom during high school, I was free to be myself. Since I was so broken, there was no hope, except the little light feeling I felt in seminary. In many things I followed my own way courageously because without expectation there was no fear of failure. In other things, spiritual things, I cared greatly what God thought of me; if I had any hope it was through him. That little light told me that even if no one else knew how broken I was, God did, and he gave me that little light anyway.
Understanding how He [God] feels about us gives us the power to love Him more purely and fully. Personally feeling the reality, love, and power of that relationship is the source of the deepest and sweetest emotions and desires that can come to a man or woman in mortality. These deep emotions of love can motivate us and give us power in times of difficulty and trial to draw closer to our Father.*
Fast forward many years, many long years that seemed to stretch far longer than 365 days, past dark days of depression, and the constant uphill battle of fighting against that childhood conclusion that inside I am all wrong.
Now I sit here, in a pew, with a calling, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, the same things that someone with a “normal” childhood would say, until someone gets too close and hints at my old secret by talking about mistakes or flaws. Then, all over again, I feel ALL wrong. The secret that I talked myself out of comes back as their critical words pull me back 35 years. I am a helpless child, heart pounding, helpless tears falling. I do not want to be a helpless child again. I am not a helpless child, God has told me so.
Within each of us lie the latent seeds of godliness that can be given flower and fruition by His blessing and by following the path of strict obedience shown to us by Jesus.*
To that confronting person this is only one thing that I was wrong about, a small irritation quickly resolved. But temptation tells me that it is evidence of my wholesale corruption which they will use to bludgeon me. I become a wounded animal.
As a wounded animal my fight or flight instinct takes over. There is nowhere to flee; this is my home, my ward, where I go for connection to the God that has saved me. So the other option is fight. But that God has told me not to fight, to turn the other cheek.
The purpose of all that the Father has revealed, commanded, and initiated for the inhabitants of earth is to help us come to know Him, emulate Him, and become like Him so we can return to His holy presence.*
I can’t fight my attacker so I fight myself. I fight that old instinct telling me that I am a deep ball of ugly on the inside. This instinct never seems to die, only hibernates. This is not one battle and then it’s over. This is an ongoing war.
To fight my cornered animal instincts is somewhat like fighting the urge to eat on fast Sunday. You don’t decide to fast and never revisit the issue. After a few hours your stomach groans and yawns for something, anything to fill the vacancy. Eventually there are twinges of pain that you know will only increase as time goes on. You smell dinner baking and your brain is the David to your stomach’s Goliath. Overwhelmed and hanging on by the mighty hope of a small stone you finally make it to dinner, grateful that the fast was only 24 hours- an amount of time that in advance you thought so simple, but now you realize is everything in that moment.
That is how I feel while waiting for the end of this confrontation with myself. Pushed into the corner and bleeding, I fight myself to avoid fighting my attacker. Even I am confused about who is attacking me, myself or the person who made one simple comment. I don’t know when this latest round of attacks will be over until I wake up one morning refreshed instead of wracked by dramatic dreams and a pounding headache.
I practice a kind of monastic masochism. I get up in the painfully early hours to exercise until my body twitches with fatigue. I bite my fingernails to hold in the attacking words that would spill from my mouth in speech and fingers in typing. In the shower I turn the water hot until it stings to pull myself from the battle inside to the wonder of earth outside. I eat and drink things that are not good for me so I won’t feed the ugly giant that fights inside me.
Yesterday, in an effort to calm my fighting instincts, I talked to an old wise man. After briefly describing a new battle, a real-life volley of ordnance aimed at me, I said, “I feel like I’m being pecked to death.”
He said, “Oh, so you know about sick chickens?”
“No, I don’t know about sick chickens.”
“When a chicken is sick and the other chickens realize it, they peck it to death. It’s instinct, they can’t help it.”
My animal instincts have been verified. Subconsciously the fit chickens in this barnyard sense my internal injuries. I feel like I’m being attacked because I am. Yet, because of that little light I know that I am no animal.
Some build their sense of personal worth by comparing themselves to others. That approach can lead to feelings of inadequacy or superiority. It is preferable to look directly to our Father for our sense of self-worth.*
I connect with my brothers and sisters who have the same war raging inside. We sick chickens stand side by side in instability, leaning against each other to hold ourselves up. That is why I attract unstable people.
I don’t know if this animal instinct, and thus the war, will ever be fully severed from me in this life because of the real physical distance from my Heavenly Father. I hope that it is one of the things that dies with this mortal body and will not resurrect with my perfected body, when I can be with God because through Christ I will have been made clean to enter His presence. Until then I keep nursing my wounds, because even when the ones inflicted by others heal, I continue to fight myself.
[The] social challenges of our day make it harder for those who suffer them to comprehend, hope for, and have faith in a righteous, loving, and caring Father. Just as the Father seeks to help us to know Him, the adversary uses every means possible to come between the Father and us. Fortunately, there is no power, sin, or condition that can keep us from the love of the Father (see Romans 8:38–39). Because God loved us first, we can come to know Him and love Him (see 1 John 4:16, 19).*
- How has your relationship with God gotten you through the battles of mortality?
- Do you relate to this post?
- Do you have any kind advice for Jen?