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On Impulse

Our family’s rescue dog Graydy recently underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his leg. We opted for the surgery after learning that, without it, he would likely suffer from arthritis and limited mobility at a young age. When we picked him up the morning after surgery, it took me a moment to reconcile this subdued, hobbling creature with our normally boisterous and rambunctious pup. Gingerly, we lifted him in the car with the help of a sling and began the ride back home. Much to his dismay, we left the veterinary hospital with strict instructions to limit his activity for the next eight weeks: no running, jumping, playing or stair-climbing. This time of rest will help his leg heal properly. Without this caution, the repair could fail, and the energy, time, and money spent on the surgery would all be wasted.

On the second day of recovery, with approximately 50 days left to go, our dog started to gaze mournfully at the stairs leading up to his favorite bed, and, if left unattended, push at the barriers blocking his way. Thankfully, we made it to the second week and our follow-up appointment relatively unscathed, where the vet assured us that our guy looked to be on track for this time in his recovery. We know we must stay committed because as he feels increasingly better, he will continue to push at the limits of his leash. To him, we are the proverbial party crasher: the perpetual obstacle preventing him from running after the backyard squirrel, romping through a rain puddle, or jumping up to greet a visitor. Thankfully, we will not need to squelch his every impulse forever, and this reminder helps get us through some of his more frustrating days.

Constantly restraining our dog led me to think about humans and the impulses we all experience on a regular basis. We fight (and sometimes lose) the battle of impulses when it comes to finishing off that carton of ice cream, scrolling through Facebook rather than getting work done, or spending more money on an item than our budget allows. As long as we don’t give in to negative impulses on a regular basis, we usually don’t face any dire consequences. Recognizing our regular temptations allows us to create our own barriers to help resist them. If a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch will be consumed immediately upon purchase (hypothetically speaking, of course), it should probably become an irregular item on the household grocery list. If social media is less of a brief distraction and more of a work disruption, it may be time to delete those apps from devices or place phones out of reach for designated periods of time.  

Truly, we are the only creatures on earth who have this amazing ability to decide whether or not to act on our impulses. We can analyze the risks and benefits of our behaviors and make a conscious choice to put down the phone or the ice cream cone. For other animals, like my dog, this is not quite the case. As soon as the post-surgery sedative is out of his system, he will try to chase the wayward chipmunk out of the yard, bound up the stairs to watch over us while we work, and insist on long walks around the neighborhood to investigate his kingdom. It would be wonderful if I could somehow communicate to him that temporary restrictions from running, jumping, and playing (otherwise known as his primary reasons for living) will allow him to fully enjoy those dog dream activities for many years to come. Unfortunately, unlike people, he does not possess the capacity to dial down or turn off these impulses, which makes our choice to do so as humans even more meaningful.

Knowing the risks and benefits of our behaviors also helps us when we need to set aside impulses for a greater purpose. I think of parenting, where acting on some of our natural impulses can create problems for our kids and ourselves. Personally, when my children were very young, I found my natural impulses to be a great match for their needs. Taking care of their wishes for food, comfort, and time spent together came naturally to me. As the kids grew older, my desire to meet their needs sometimes became more of a liability than an asset. My natural impulse to lighten their load tempted me to make their lunch every day, do their laundry, or put their dishes into the dishwasher for them. I needed to set those impulses aside in order to help them learn how to do those tasks on their own, on their way to becoming more independent, capable adults who do not live in our basement forever.

As a country, for the past few months, we’ve set aside our national impulse to congregate in public spaces in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. By staying home, we gave health officials time to study the virus and determine the best medical responses. We kept our hospitals from being overwhelmed and running out of personal protective equipment. We tried to protect our community’s most medically vulnerable population. Tragically, more than 100,000 Americans have lost their lives, and most medical experts feel this number would have been much higher without the precautions that we took.

Since we’ve been isolated from others, our natural desires to connect and socialize in person often feel stronger than ever. As more of society begins to open, we are making choices about how and when to act on our impulses to gather with others. Some of us feel more comfortable getting together with friends or going out to a restaurant. Others feel the need to be more cautious and limit their interactions primarily to members of their own household. There are also differences of opinion about whether we need to wear masks and keep socially distant from others in public. We are all make decisions about how to balance our social needs with our concerns about staying safe, since the virus is still with us and we have no vaccine or cure.

Our conflicting impulses to socialize or stay home may place some strain on our relationships. I believe there is another impulse, however, that causes more divisiveness during this pandemic and other turbulent times: our impulse to defend our perspective as the right one. This impulse tells us to wait for our turn to inform the other person why we are right instead of genuinely listening to their words and concerns and reflecting them back. This impulse tells us to share posts on social media without verifying the information contained in them. This impulse tells us we have to always defend our political figure, religious leader, or other person of authority rather than acknowledge when they may have acted inappropriately. Often without our even realizing it, this impulse tells us to make societal matters about ourselves and our own experience, rather than recognize when the spotlight needs to be on an issue bigger than we are.

My dog’s impulses are pretty straightforward, and I know he (and we!) will be indescribably overjoyed when he can indulge them all again. I have relished some peaceful early mornings sitting in our front yard while he rests and tunes in to a dog’s version of reality TV: birds tending their nests, people and dogs walking by, delivery trucks stopping next door, or even thunder clouds rolling above us. I know in a heartbeat, though, that he will gladly abandon laying on a blanket for the opportunity to chase around the yard at top speed. Once no longer restrained, he will be free to do just that: in fact, with his doggy impulses, he won’t really be able to make another choice. Humans, however, have both freedom and responsibility when it comes to impulse control. We must recognize our impulses, understand how acting on them affects us and others, and find ways to rise above the ones that harm rather than help us. These impulses affect us individually and as people sharing this world together. We must fight the impulse to retreat to our own corners when we face divisive times. The road to greater unity is full of potholes and slippery spots, but every time we make the decision to truly consider viewpoints other than our own, we move ourselves one step closer.   

Impulses beware!

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