The War of Animal Instincts

Jen is an artist who realized that her sketchbook has more words than sketches and now calls herself a writer. She’s completing her bachelors’s degree in psychology and will be ready for grad school about the same time her oldest child starts college. As stay at home mom married for 20 years she’s also loved other people’s children as a foster parent. Her current residence is Iowa, although she’s spread her heart across the US- most recently living in Pennsylvania. She’s been blogging for 5 years, currently at jendoop.blogspot.com and RealIntent.org

All quotes are from Elder Quentin L. Cook: “The Doctrine of the Father”

I attract dysfunctional people. My good friend Mary is a Catholic, with the usual guilt, and has alcoholic parents. My friend Katie is recovering from an abusive marriage and the recent death of her parents. After just a few conversations with a new friend, Jill, she admitted that she suffers from depression and doesn’t stay on her medication. It seems that I subconsciously seek out people like this.

As a child I didn’t have the traditional Mormon upbringing, although when people find out that I was raised in the church they assume I did. Much of my childhood was painful and confusing. As children often do, I turned pain and confusion inward and believed that I was utterly defective.

During high school I was so broken there was no hope, except a little light feeling during seminary. That little light told me that even if no one else knew how broken I was, God did, and he gave me that little light anyway.

“Understanding how He [God] feels about us gives us the power to love Him more purely and fully. Personally feeling the reality, love, and power of that relationship is the source of the deepest and sweetest emotions and desires that can come to a man or woman in mortality. These deep emotions of love can motivate us and give us power in times of difficulty and trial to draw closer to our Father.”

Fast forward many long years that seemed to stretch far longer than 365 days, past dark days of depression, and now I sit here: in a pew, with a leadership calling, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things; the same things that someone with a “normal” childhood would say. Until someone gets too close and hints at my secret by pointing out a mistake or flaw. Then I feel ALL wrong. The secret that I talked myself out of rushes back as their critical words pull me back 35 years. I feel like a helpless child again. I am not a helpless child, God has told me so.

Within each of us lie the latent seeds of godliness that can be given flower and fruition by His blessing and by following the path of strict obedience shown to us by Jesus.”

Temptation tells me that this flaw is evidence of my wholesale corruption which they will use to bludgeon me. I become a wounded animal, my fight or flight instinct takes over. There is nowhere to flee; this is my home, my ward, where I go for connection to God. So the other option is fight, except that God has told me not to fight, to turn the other cheek.

“The purpose of all that the Father has revealed, commanded, and initiated for the inhabitants of earth is to help us come to know Him, emulate Him, and become like Him so we can return to His holy presence. “

I can’t fight my attacker so I fight myself. I fight that old instinct telling me that I am a deep ball of ugly on the inside. This instinct never seems to die, only hibernates.

On the worst days I secretly practice a kind of monastic masochism. I get up in the painfully early hours to exercise until my body twitches with fatigue. I bite my fingernails to hold in the attacking words that would spill from my mouth in speech and fingers in writing. In the shower I turn the water hot until it stings to pull myself from the battle inside to the wonder of earth outside. I eat and drink things that are not healthy but taste good so I will feel something good. I don’t know when this latest round of attacks will be over until I wake up one morning refreshed, instead of wracked by dramatic dreams and a pounding headache.

Yesterday in an effort to calm my fighting instincts I talked to an old wise man. After briefly describing the situation I said, “I feel like I’m being pecked to death.”

He said, “You know, when a chicken is sick and the other chickens realize it they peck it to death. It’s instinct, they can’t help it.”

I feel like I’m being attacked because I am. Yet, because of that little light I know that I am no animal.

“Some build their sense of personal worth by comparing themselves to others. That approach can lead to feelings of inadequacy or superiority. It is preferable to look directly to our Father for our sense of self-worth.”

I connect with my brothers and sisters who have the same war raging inside. We sick chickens stand side by side in instability, leaning against each other to hold ourselves up. This is why I subconsciously seek them out, we understand each other.

It feels as if this animal instinct will never be fully severed from me in this life because of the physical distance from my Heavenly Father. I hope it is one of the things that dies with this mortal body and will not resurrect with my perfected body, when I can be with God because through Christ I will have been made clean to enter His presence. Until then I keep nursing my wounds, because even when the ones inflicted by others heal, I continue to fight myself.

“[The] social challenges of our day make it harder for those who suffer them to comprehend, hope for, and have faith in a righteous, loving, and caring Father. Just as the Father seeks to help us to know Him, the adversary uses every means possible to come between the Father and us. Fortunately, there is no power, sin, or condition that can keep us from the love of the Father (see Romans 8:38–39). Because God loved us first, we can come to know Him and love Him (see 1 John 4:16, 19).”

14 thoughts on “The War of Animal Instincts

  1. Excellent post! Very well articulated. You seem to know yourself well but not how to fix it. The best we can do on our own is to learn to play a consistent game. Our faith helps us hang on but hanging on can be torture. Outside help can change our game and raise our score.

  2. It is so true. Somehow we are innately attracted to people who are similarly broken. I have often thought about this and it confused me before I realized I needed them. Thank heaven for such tender mercies as understanding friends. I hope your healing continues.

  3. Thanks you for that insight into my own life and into how the gospel makes healing and holding on–and hoping–possible. Very well done.

  4. Patti – Thank you. And welcome to the chicken coop.

    Howard – Knowing but not doing is the story of life isn’t it? We knew what to do before we came to earth, I think we all had testimonies or we wouldn’t have chosen to come here. The test really is application and getting there together.

    Tay – Thank you. There are no throw away people, although sometimes we have to set healthy boundaries. In others we find reflections of ourselves that lead us towards better application, as Howard pointed out.

    Heather – Writing is important to me because of connections that you and I, and the other commenters, have made. Blogs make it even better because it can be a two way conversation. Elder Cook’s words are especially applicable in our modern culture, I appreciate his consolation and simultaneous recognition that these things don’t go away overnight. I wonder if Mormon or Moroni would have given a similar sermon in their day?

  5. I so enjoyed your post.

    I grew up “in” the church, along the Wasatch Front, doing what was expected. But I always felt like a fraud, even though I knew the gospel was true, because I wasn’t perfectly true in living it. I have had my bouts of depression, the troubles which “so easily beset me”, flaws which are literally out there for all to see. Sometimes it is hard to want to leave my house and do what I need to because of it.

    Something that has taken me a long time to internalize is that inside each one of us, we feel like the pecked chicken.
    Some people react to their own internal garbage by lashing out at others, reluctant to look inside at their own beams restricting their progress. Others turn inward, magnifying every flaw and weakness 1000x, until we think that is ALL we are, a ball of mistakes.

    Understanding that each child of our Father has those same worries on some level has accorded me peace and compassion for them, as fellow strugglers upon the path of life. And sometimes, every once in a while, I feel like I am holding a little of that light of our Savior and bringing it to others.

  6. I always feel like a fraud, to this day. When anyone tells me i’m talented, I think “Yeah, but you don’t know how hard I have to work at this other stuff just to be perceived as normal.” My kids are the same way. One of my saving graces in middle and high school was a local production of the play “You Can’t Take it with You.” There was a bunch of weird people, all wonderful, all perceived as bizarre. All imminently acceptable, and yet unaccepted. It comforted me…if someone wrote such a piece, from obvious internal knowledge, then surely there were others out there, other like me. Now I hoard them carefully, and find that each of my fractured friends is also the most amazing…the most talented, compassionate, kind, beautiful people, because the gaining of that talent was not an easy path. Thank you for your words, because even though I don’t understand the same circumstances, I think that many of us, especially the literary ones, especially the artistic ones, the dramatic and theatric ones, especially the genius ones understand…..

  7. Through your comments I’ve realized that this post is more universal than I first thought. We deal with things differently, we express ourselves differently, but deep down most, if not all, of us understand this kind of pain.

    Thank you very much for commenting and letting me know what you think. It helps me move on and gather bravery for another post.

  8. I also grew up in the “church” but did not have the happy upbringing that one usually associates with growing up as a member. I also struggle with deep scars from my childhood. Lately I have also really been struggling to feel like I belong at church, and struggling with how people can sometimes treat others so poorly while also claiming to follow Jesus Christ. It is very comforting to know that I am not alone. I feel like things are slowly getting a little better for me, as I learn more about the atonement and the gospel and purpose of life (mainly that we’re not supposed to be perfect right away – neither me nor the people who are sometimes so casually cruel), and I hope things get better for you too.

  9. Thank you. I have struggling with this before, but as you put so well, it has hibernated for years. It has come back with a vengeance and I have days where I am debilitated. I have never thought of my struggles as a part of this physical experience. My traumas have been physical, but the pain manifests itself in deeply spiritual ways. Thank you again for your honesty and your gift of perspective.

  10. May I suggest a healthy dose of perspective.

    Try what I call “Maxwell for a Month”. Grab every talk / book / devotional by Elder Neal A. Maxwell you can find on LDS.org, BYU/BYU-I Devotionals, Deseret Book, etc., and read / listen to / watch anything you can get your hands on for 30 days. Put aside your regular media and listen while in the car or working out, read while at the Dr. office or instead of surfing or reading the newspaper/magazines, watch instead of TV or dinking around on YouTube, etc.

    Also, I would suggest a little study in the “Defense against the Dark Arts” – learn about the tools that the adversary is using to get us to waste the opportunities and our precious gift of agency. Study the effects of ignorance, self-deception, half-truths, foolish cultural traditions and influences, vain ambitions, distractions, misconceptions, jealousy in a world of mass and social media, and all the other cunning tricks that are used against us. May I suggest you start with “Bonds that Make Us Free” by C. Terry Warner.

    Also, “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh would be a good start.

    And I last leave you with a quote from Anthony de Mello -

    “What, concretely, is Enlightenment?”
    “Seeing Reality as it is,” said the Master.
    “Doesn’t everyone see Reality as it is?”
    “Oh, no! Most people see it as they think it is.”
    “What’s the difference?”
    “The difference between thinking you are drowning in a stormy sea and knowing you cannot drown because there isn’t any water in sight for miles around.”

  11. Shoot, You may not realize it but your comment is patronizing and condescending. Instead of explaining to you what I’ve done over the years to immerse myself in the doctrines of salvation I’ll blend two scriptures (Matt 26:40 and Mosiah 18:9) and ask, “What, could ye not mourn with me one hour?”

  12. Thank you for posting this. I feel broken inside as well, and for years I mercilessly attacked myself because I didn’t know what else to do. I’m slowly learning not to, but it’s hard sometimes. My childhood was difficult, and as a result, I feel unworthy of the friendship of others. Despite my outward appearance of confidence, I can’t shake the belief that I’ll never be good enough. I’m grateful you’ve shared this because it’s easy to think I’m alone. It helps me to know there are other sick chickens who understand the pain I feel, and have the courage to write about it.

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