Stress is a reality. We don’t have to like it, but we have to figure out how we’re going to handle stress when it happens. A decade into ministry in various settings, I find that humans tend to respond to conflict in a variety of ways that seem to be pretty common in the animal kingdom. The physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon is credited with the explanation of the “fight or flight” or “acute response,” which he used to explain the reaction of animals when facing danger. And most of the time, it seems to define how people work, whether it’s at home, at work, or… in church.
Cannon’s ideas have become increasingly interesting to me as a pastor, as I negotiate the dynamics of churches handling stress, whether it’s natural change, conflict, or something irregular. But on further study, I found that Cannon’s ideas were actually threefold when considering the animal kingdom. And as I’ll propose, there may actually be a fourth!
1. Fight: When stress hits, some people go into defensive, “circle-the-wagons” position. They aggressively respond to whatever the current ‘conflict’ is, paint the world in black and white, and move forward with a steel-willed determination that the situation they face (and the world around them) is definitively divided between ‘us’ and ‘them.’
2. Flight: When stress hits, some people… run! They see the problem, the controversy, the unpleasantness, and are convinced that absolute avoidance of the situation is best. Flight can include distance traveled, avoidance of the people and place involved, ignoring the problem, etc. But involvement in the problem and any solutions is prohibited!
3. Freeze: When stress hits, some people are rendered immobile. Depression and anxiety are earmarks, as the stress/conflict/frustration over the situation causes these people to be completely neutralized or sidelined to the point where they can’t act any way.
Which one is your default? It’s probably one you can trace in a pattern, back to childhood. When so-and-so was upset with you, or you had a problem in school, you [__________]. When you and your significant other clash, you [_______]. When the problem arises at work, you [_______]. When a disagreement over how to handle something in a community organization or place of worship, you [_________].
But what if there’s actually something more, a different option?
4. Follow: When stress hits, some people go to Jesus. They see the problem, the controversy, the conflict, and they go to God in prayer, in holy conversations with others, in reading the Scripture, in examining their conscience with the Holy Spirit’s help. It’s the only option not available to Cannon’s study because animals don’t have souls. Animals can’t see the example of Jesus, they can’t hear the teachings he proposed, they can’t develop a new way of thinking that affects their moral behavior. [In an aside, it’s similar to cartoons not being able to praise God, but that’s Chris Rice, just sayin’.]
But we can. We can choose not to fight needlessly, to stay instead of fleeing, to continue to move and live even when the going gets tough. We can make a pointed decision to love God and love others even when we and they are less inclined to love, and more inclined to one of the first three options. While we all say we want to be in control, we sometimes fail to actually take control. With these four options, I think I’d prefer the fourth. It sounds a lot more like really living than the first three.
But it’s certainly not easier.