By Rev. Rachel Neer
Human beings were created with three default methods for dealing with conflict: fight, flight, or freeze. It makes sense to me. If there is a wild animal chasing you, one of these three things could be effective. If there is no house with no door and the bear you’ve been sharing a cave with all winter wakes up hangry, all of these may be necessary.
As we have evolved we have moved into what some would say is a “civilized” way of being. For the most part, we do not have to run away from bears and lions. We do not have to fight back with all of our strength when we feel threatened. We don’t even need to be still so as not to be seen when we feel threatened.
The funny thing, though, is that our brains have not forgotten these ways of defending ourselves.
I attended a Poverty Immersion last week. We spent an hour of our day living in a month of poverty. During that time all we had to do was get ourselves places, make sure our kids stayed in school, buy food, pay the bills, keep our house, go to work, and cash our checks before the bank closed. Easy, right?
Y’all, I froze. Doing all of these things, any of these things, took more brain power than I had. It was like there was a bear waiting to pounce on me the first time I made a mistake. There were social services agencies who could help my kids and me, but I had to spend a week with each of them for them to tell me they couldn’t help me. At the end of the day, when my kids came home from school, I felt paralyzed.
I fought. I went to churches, stores, agencies, and utility companies and I fought. There was a wall in front of me that I kept building, brick by brick. I was frustrated that no one could – or would – help me. I was frustrated that their priorities did not line up with mine. I was angry that they took so long to see me and that I needed social security numbers for my family members every time I went to see them. I snapped at a few of them.
I ran, too. I ran from place to place, praying I wasn’t out of time. Hoping my electricity was still on. Hoping that I didn’t get evicted. Hoping I got home before the kids. I ran to buy food. I ran to cash checks. I ran to buy bus tickets. I ran.
At Project Transformation, we know this is not a game. This is real life for many of our families. We could easily be just another part of the system. The kids that we work with are feeling the same stressors their parents are feeling because there is no way around it. It is like there is a lion or a bear in every room of their house and they are always trying to figure out what to do so that it doesn’t pounce on them.
While kids are with us, we try to put these scary animals in a cage for a few hours. We give the kids permission to be angry, scared, and vulnerable. We are clear with them that we love them. We love them deeply and with all of our hearts because we understand how terrifying it is to have a lion chasing you every minute of every day.
We treat our families, especially the caregivers, with compassion and empathy. We ask how we can support them, we hug them when they are stressed, we keep the kids just a little longer if they need to make a phone call or go to a job interview. We know that life with wild animals is not easy, and the burden often falls on the guardians and oldest kids.
We know we may never get rid of the lion or the bear. But one day it may be a nice family pet. We will do everything in our power to help that happen.
Rachel Neer serves as Executive Director for Project Transformation: Pacific Northwest engaging young adults in purposeful leadership and ministry, supporting children in holistic development, and connecting churches with communities. Click here to learn more.