Survival vs Thriving

Individuals cannot use the strategies of survival to thrive. Strategies of survival such as hyper-vigilance, control and self interest at the expense of everything else (oppressing others), mistrust of others/paranoia, hyper-competitiveness, greed and other fear based reactions were developed to defend against trauma and the uncertainty of one’s personal sense of safety and thus survival. Continuing to use those strategies long after they are necessary or useful is a sign of continued trauma based decision making. The corollaries between individual symptoms of PTSD and cultural level PTSD are actually strikingly similar.

In our recorded history, time after time the overuse of survival strategies have been the downfall of civilizations, wild excesses born of greed, the fomenting of fear to conquer and divide humans so they can not be threats or potential competitors for what are perceived to be scarce resources. Mistrust and paranoia (the insane levels of surveillance by the NSA anyone?) creation of unjust policies, and actions based on oppressive policies when they are not needed for survival, continuing to use brutal competition (corporate capitalism at its worst) to harm others and therefore make them less threatening, these are all signs of trauma based reactions on a culture wide basis. In a survival mentality a person is driven to find ways to become secure. In survivalist cultures people are limited to pursuing actions that will gain them security. People use any advantages of money, membership in certain groups, or other means to lift themselves at the expenses of others. It is and will be the downfall of our planet if we insist on continuing to use the strategies that have outlived their usefulness.

Oppression and greed in particular are fear based strategies and desperate attempts at self preservation or attempts to prove self worth to oneself or others. Unfortunately, in a dysfunctional family, or culture, both oppression and greed are often seen as normal pathways to having power and control over one’s life.  It is a desperate sort of power and control though, and is emphatically not motivated by a sense of security.

Who is sane, a person who resolves conflicts with others peacefully or a person who resorts to violence? Survivalists say “It depends on the situation.” For those who believe outmoded patriarchal assumptions, or have conceptions of personal power based on having power over people, this may be a sane answer. For those not in the grips of such fear based thinking, this is a ridiculous answer.

Happily adjusted, spiritually intact and truly thriving individuals do not resort to violence or oppress others, they do not have undue mistrust of others, they are not greedy, in fact, they are usually very generous and cooperative with others. In a thriving family, people are encouraged to follow their true interests and become their own best versions of themselves. This will at times create some conflicts among family members, but these can always be resolved peacefully. When people are thriving, there are not rigid gender roles, huge or arbitrary hierarchical demarkations, or a sense of superiority over others. There is not a rigid formula for living that people feel compelled to follow out of fear. The corollaries between individuals and cultural level manifestations are again quite similar.

In thriving cultural contexts, where the strategies are based on improving the quality of life rather than worrying about being attacked or continuing to squabble over patches of land, cooperation and collaboration are the bedrocks of the cultural mindsets. People’s natural instincts to cooperate are allowed to flourish, and strikingly, there is more equality between genders. Differences are not seen as threatening. Diversity is welcomed and seen as enriching. The strategies are to support and be supported, this is very different than survival based strategies. Conflicts can and do arise- in fact they often help bring about progress. But again, conflicts are resolved peacefully, by means other than violence or the threat of mutual annihilation. The need to protect one’s ego diminishes and, with that armor shed, the exchange of ideas becomes central, not being right.

How does a nonviolent family resolve conflicts? By agreeing to disagree, by hearing each person out and choosing from a place of wisdom and compassion rather than dominance and need for control.

Switching from using survival tactics to thriving techniques is a process, it involves a lot of uncovering and then rethinking of assumptions and norms. The first focus is necessarily on creating a sense of as much safety as possible. This is so the mind can be as calm as possible and start to come up with alternatives that are not based in flight, flight or freeze survival reactions.  Intertwined with that is that compassion needs to be very deliberately and consciously cultivated and transmitted towards ourselves and others.[2]

When we deal with people who are not in their right minds, who are paranoid, what do we use to help us deal with them: weapons or tools? To lower a person’s paranoia we need to show good will and assume the person is doing the best they can at the moment.  In extreme cases we may need to administer tranquilizers, but arguing with or condemning frightened people does nothing to help. We need to stay calm ourselves (quite a trick at times), and be able to think clearly.  These are the first orders of business.


[2] These things can be difficult to cultivate due to our own paranoia and mistrust, and/or due to the behaviors an ill person has exhibited.  It is difficult to show compassion towards wife beaters when we think about their actions upon others (for example). If we are paranoid (or perceptive) it is difficult to show compassion towards those we suspect treat others badly.  It is difficult to see people’s pain when they clearly are the perpetrators of actions that cause pain. Nonetheless, in order to help ourselves and others become more functional, we have to treat everyone with dignity and compassion.  We have to see others as fully human.  That means we have to be willing to see their pain- or at least know that it is there even when it has been deeply buried, and respond to it and them compassionately. Obviously it takes conscious reflection to think about other people’s pain, something we avoid as a survival strategy when we are affected by trauma.  It’s also simply painful to take in other people’s pain under the best of circumstances, and it takes courage and willingness to do that when we have been harmed by others or seen them as threats.  But it is essential to see people as full humans in order to make the leap from a survival mindset to a person who is able to thrive and live a full and vibrant life. Compassion towards others does not imply non accountability.  Indeed, finding ways to hold people accountable in compassionate ways is very much a part of helping people heal.