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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 2 18 22 – Seeing the Grass Amidst the Lions

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.” ― Marc Riboud

I consider myself a picture taker, with a decent eye for framing subject matter. The picture above is a favorite from the Brough of Birsay in the Orkneys, Scotland. A place I want to go back to before the big dirt nap. For the record, I do not consider myself a photographer. An F stop to me is what one yells at a person when one is upset and wants them to cease the activity immediately. I don’t know an F stop from an ISO. For me to take a picture that people like is somewhat flattering, but declaring myself a photographer would be an insult to people who have learned the craft in ways I simply have not yet done. If I called myself a photographer, real ones would have the right to tell me to F stop. It is on my bucket list to learn more about all that stuff. Until then, I am a picture taker, not a photographer. Perhaps someday.

To share why I like taking pictures hits notes in other areas of my life. Truth be told, starting to take pictures came from a realization I needed to spend more time focusing on beauty. This is because I have seen a whole lot of ugly in life. Working with people as a social worker and clinician for many decades has taught me there is almost no end to how horrible human beings can be to each other. Such conduct is pretty much everywhere, beyond the places one might most expect to find it. Having seen a lot of human depravity and the worst in what this world has to offer, I needed to focus on the other stuff. Incidentally, I have also seen humans rise up out of the worst situations. If I am counting things of beauty, I must include the human spirit, people can go through the very worst and end up some of the finest souls you could ever meet. In fact, this seems to be how these souls develop most often.

Seeing a lot of ugly stuff go down ends up wiring a person to look at the world in a certain way. One of these things I have developed is a heightened level of situational awareness. At nearly every moment, I am reflexively looking for what can go wrong. Two years ago, I saved a woman’s life because of how I am wired this way. Running a residential SUD treatment center for 14 years probably honed these observational skills to a fine point. Truth be told, I developed such skills very early in life for reasons that I will not delineate here. Stuff necessary to getting past age 12 all the way to 56. I am not alone. A lot of people have experienced high levels of stress, particularly in early childhood that leads to a heightened response to perceived danger. This video explains what happens when a trauma response gets triggered too often. Hard wired for threat detection can increase all kinds of stuff that is not good for our health.

Amazing survival skills, but with a price. I don’t want to be stuck in fight or flight all the time. My brain has extra wiring to see the lion in the grass waiting to eviscerate me. I can see one from a mile away. It is also true that scanning for hidden lions in every patch of grass can shrink the brain! The cool recovery lesson is that we can change our brains by changing what we do. I was taught this early in recovery. It is a profound and powerful tool that has a lot of applicability, to a myriad of behavior and thinking patterns, and not just for me. Anyone can do it. All one has to do is focus on something that one wants to experience more of the brain looks for it more often. It actually changes brain architecture.

This article from Harvard Health talks about how to protect the brain from chronic stress. An important topic at this juncture. Right now, medical care workers, first responders and even grocery store clerks are walking around with a few too many activations of that fight or flight response. This article from Forbes suggests seven ways a person can take advantage of the brains plasticity and reverse the alterations that occur as a result of too many perceived lions, tigers and bears in the grass. We all have these things called dendrites in our brain, and the ones we feed grow, and the ones we stop feeding shrink. In simple terms, that is how axon growth and the arborization of dendrites occurs. While this article talks about how our brains reach their peak axon development and that our axons shrink by 45% between ages 20 and 80, it is also true that at any age we can take advantage of our brains neuroplasticity and train it to focus on what we want to experience. Life does not begin to end at 20 even if it is when we start losing our marbles.

The bottom line is I saw far too much ugly over an extended period of time. Now, I look for beauty and try and capture it with a camera. I even find it pleasing to look back at these photos and so many wonderful memories of all these positive experiences come flooding back. I still see the lions, but the grass is pretty amazing when the light captures it just right! I am grateful for the grass, a camera and two eyes to see and capture as much beauty as I am able to find in the world!

This gratitude Friday, I am that we have the capacity to change what we think and how we respond to things. I am grateful that the human brain can rewire and that we can do things to change how our brains work. I have taught mine to stay in recovery. I have also taught it to look for beauty as I walk through this life. I am grateful to live in a world that is so incredibly beautiful, even if one has to wade through the ugly to see it. Life is more than lions waiting to eat you. What are you grateful for today?

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