Breaking through our deeply ingrained survival instincts to propel towards a better version of ourselves
One of my first sleepless nights came long before my health crisis in medical school. It followed an advanced English literature class with Mrs. Shaman at Claremont High School. The assignment was to write a reflective essay on the Malayan proverb, “Trumpet in a herd of elephants; crow in the company of cocks; bleat in a flock of goats”.
I was up half the night trying to wrap my mind around what this phrase could possibly mean. Then it dawned on me that the meaning was the same as the more commonly used proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. Once I understood its meaning, I decided to reflect on its antithesis, a Polish proverb that more closely described the kind of person I wanted to be then, and how I live my life and run my practice now, “Eagles fly alone; sheep flock together”.
“Although human beings are rarely in mortal danger, they regularly deny their personal opinions and desires to go with the crowd, to do what’s more acceptable.”
During that long night of research in 1987, I discovered anthropologist and behavioral scientist, Robert Ardrey, author of The Social Contract. Ardrey explained how all animals have built-in alarm systems to alert them, as well as their social group, to danger. When one starling sounds an alarm, the entire flock takes to the air, flying in close formation and moving in unison, often changing directions with odd angles and sharp turns to confuse the oncoming predator. The visual overwhelm is enough to deter most birds of prey, including falcons.
The impulse to fall in line with those around us and “Do as the Romans do” is deeply ingrained in our survival instinct, as well. The problem is that although human beings are rarely in mortal danger, they regularly deny their personal opinions and desires to go with the crowd, to do what’s more acceptable. Many religious sects that use shunning to coerce people to conform understand this deeply -seeded impulse. Our prehistoric ancestors knew that to survive, they had to work and stay together. Getting separated from the group guaranteed an early demise. Even today, we have a very strong instinctual, yet unconscious, association that says separation = death. You may not realize it, but it’s also the reason why people jump onto fads and buy or wear something just because everyone else is doing it. The need to belong is synonymous with the need to survive.
“Progress is always seen as blasphemy before a blessing.”
The drive to conform within professions is probably strongest in traditional medicine. I know what it’s like to forge a new path while resisting cookie cutter symptom management. It saddens me when physicians admire my practice and patient outcomes and yet still reply with comments such as, “That would be so different for me. What if I lost the respect of my colleagues? What if patients left my practice?” or even worse, “That’s just not the way we do it.”
Of course it isn’t. That’s the whole purpose of blazing a new trail and trying to move medicine forward instead of flying in the same patterns all the time going nowhere. It’s trusting that taking a new direction will reveal a new vision. Unlike birds, we human trail blazers hold the intention that we won’t be pecked to death if we move out of formation. Yes, there will be humiliation and even intimidation to return to the fold. We’ll be called alchemist, pseudo-scientist or fortuneteller. However, if our persistence holds out and we can separate our misinterpreted drive to survive from our individual passion for progress, we just might end up being called visionary, cutting-edge thinker or courageous inventor. The masters that have come before us have proven this to be true. Progress is always seen as blasphemy before a blessing. Ignaz Semmelweis was a 19th century physician who firmly believed that washing hands before surgeries and delivering babies could greatly reduce patient infections and death. At first, he was mercilessly humiliated, but we all know how the story turned out. Today, the largest university in Hungary is named after him.
Life thrives on diversity and individuality. Sameness can lead to stagnation and death. If life-forms and functions didn’t evolve, everything would certainly die. What could be more nondescript than grass? It all pretty much looks the same and yet, there are 9,000 different species of grass. The same goes for every other animal, plant and substance in existence. Its present form is only a vehicle to propel it into an even better version of itself. This can’t happen if we deny our own truth, blunt our personal progress and stay with the flock. We no longer control our destiny. We’re no longer people; we’re sheeple. Healing is a calling to forge a new path in life and evolve into a greater version of you. Sometimes that requires going against convention. Whether health or another dream is your goal, if you have the courage to leave the flock, the next time you look back you just might find everyone else following you. The choice is yours.