Ol' Red

     Part of my training in graduate school was to care for the collection of assorted live animals that accompanied the pursuit of natural history. One of these was Ol' Red, a very large, red diamond-back rattlesnake.
     Once a week I fed him wild mice. When I put the mice into his cage, they immediately exhibited their fear of Ol' Red's odor by running away, which induced Ol' Red to strike, kill, and eat the mice. One time, however, I failed to catch wild mice, so I had to go to the animal laboratory and get "lab mice," which were simply albino house mice that had been bred in captivity for so many generations they had forgotten what a snake was and so had lost all fear of them.
     When I put two of these mice into the cage, they waddled up to Ol' Red, nipped him on the nose, climbed up on his back, and chewed off his nineteen magnificent rattles. Ol' Red, meanwhile, buried his head under his coils and refused to move. I left the mice in the cage for two to three days, but finally took them out because I was afraid they might hurt Ol' Red.
     The lab mice had broken the stimulus-fear response cycle and Ol' Red didn't know what to do. He didn't know how to respond to an unknown pattern of behavior. The fearless mice had simply rewritten the rules of engagement and in so doing had changed the game. Ol' Red, therefore, no longer knew how to play the game because it differed from the instinct bequeathed him by his long line of ancestors.
     One of our greatest human struggles in life is learning to get along with one another. Unfortunately, many us come from families with unhealthy, interpersonal dynamics, such as incest, alcoholism, and other forms of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as children. We can be so wounded by the trauma of living through these dysfunctional relationships that we are often impaired for the rest of our lives.
     It took me twenty years, for example, to realize what a gift Ol' Red and the lab mice had given me. If I wanted to break out of the dysfunctional cycle of my upbringing, I had to rewrite the rules, as the lab mice had done with Ol' Red, and play a different game. If I no longer cooperated with the carefully choreographed homeostasis established specifically to maintain my dysfunctional behavior to the benefit of someone else, I could be free to grow beyond my shackles. After all, I was not forcibly "locked" into a dysfunctional cycle, which meant that I could always choose to break out of it. And I did.
     So can you.

© chris maser 2004. All Rights Reserved

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