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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Surviving the Unknown

We are conditioned from the earliest moments of embodiment to register repetitive and familiar experiences as safe and comfortable. Unfamiliar, uncommon experiences register in the nervous system as uncomfortable and dangerous. Our biological and anthropological history installed this sensitivity and differentiating capacity as a survival mechanism.

This deep program was extremely relevant when the world was dangerous, when humans were the preyed upon by predators living and hunting in the same territory in which human beings lived and hunted. The humans who were careful or cautious or stayed in the cave, survived. Those who were bold and chance-taking beyond the caves, were frequently killed and eaten – and obviously failed to reproduce. According to some experts, modern human beings are inheritors of the cautious nature of the cave dwellers.

In 21st century western society, we are quite safe, no longer threatened by predators when we forage for our food at Safeway or Whole Foods. Nevertheless, the ancient programming runs constantly, an undercurrent deep in the unconscious layers of the nervous system, generating anxiety at low or high levels. Whenever we are in unfamiliar territory, when we are uncertain, or don’t know what’s going on . . . when we are unsure about the degree of control we have over our circumstances . . . we feel fear.

Experiment for a moment with noticing how you feel when you think the thought, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Say it to yourself as if it’s 100% true and notice . . . perhaps a familiar sensation arises. Next, experiment with holding the belief, “Something bad might happen.” It may be subtle or strong, but there will be an automatic biological signal which leads to heightened awareness preparing you for “fight, flight, freeze, or fold,” – the four limbic system responses to high stress or danger.

We are driven to figure out and prepare for whatever we’re uncertain about. Assuming our survival is at stake, if we know what to do, we have a much better chance of surviving the next snowstorm, famine, or abusive attack. When, after surviving one encounter with a lion, or an earthquake, or an alcohol-driven assault from a father, we “figure it out,” we then construct a belief about how to be safe. The previously unknown, life-threatening circumstance has become known. We believe how to survive has also become known.

Beliefs are explanatory devices we use to deal with unknowns. When a child asks, “Why did this happen to me? Why does my father hurt me?” they conclude that the father’s violent rage is their fault: “I must be a terrible person. That’s the only safe explanation for why Daddy hits me.” If Daddy doesn’t like me or doesn’t want me, that would not be survivable. Who would take care of me? Deciding it is my fault, that there is something wrong with me is painful and tragic, but survivable. My caretaker remains intact if I am the problem. Something gets settled. While the belief may be entirely made up and false, what was unknown is now known. That is what matters. That is all that matters when we are in survival mode. The unknown is now known. The uncertainty is settled, and the belief in one’s inherent wrongness is buried deep in the body and psyche.

In these modern times, we live in a mostly predictable state, so “planning in advance” is based on a belief in predictability. It’s often possible to predict a parent’s behavior when it has repeated many times, or to plan to retrofit a building in preparation for natural disasters. Yet, no amount of planning in advance will ultimately eliminate all unknowns. A deep ocean drilling rig can explode and spew millions of gallons of oil and gas into the ocean. A parent can escalate their behavior when triggered by something unforeseen or unusual, entirely unrelated to the child.

Beliefs do not automatically expire when their usefulness is over. Unless we become aware, our old beliefs about ourselves, formulated for safety in childhood, run us as adults, and they can be triggered by any circumstances remotely resembling the situation in which they were formed. Your wife asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer. Your face flushes. That familiar bitter taste of shame arises. Suddenly, you are feeling (and acting) like you’re four years old, not good enough, afraid of being hurt.

Learning to identify and transmute old beliefs which no longer serve creates space for new, useful, empowering beliefs that embrace your natural enthusiasm, curiosity, and playfulness. When the need to feel safe isn’t the primary and controlling force in your world view there is time to perceive and consider the possible safety available to you now, even though the future can't be entirely known. When you know yourself and believe that its safe to BE true to your inner sense of knowing, you will notice yourself becoming more alive, aware and present . . . spontaneously welcoming of the ever unfolding unknowns.

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