The courage to choose the right direction

The courage to choose the right direction

The fight-or-flight response is particularly strong in the populist movements, but it takes us in the wrong direction. Choosing the right direction is a matter of being open, vulnerable and courageous.

I have written in previous blogs about the multi-faceted crisis that the world is suffering today, that continuously manifests itself in different forms: a financial crisis, a refugee crisis, a gender crisis, an identity crisis, a spiritual crisis, and, of course, an ecological crisis. I think the majority of people would acknowledge that we are facing serious unprecedented situations and that we must question a lot of the things that have been taken for granted for too long. But, challenging as this is, perhaps we should also not be too surprised then by the widespread rise of populist movements, that prefer to react with a collective fight-or-flight response – fighting the people who truly want to deal with the crisis; and fleeing into an imagined glorified national past, into keeping their national culture free from foreign influence and into building (psychological and physical) walls to keep their neighbourhoods free from migrants, ethnic minorities, potential criminals, people with different (religious) beliefs.


First, it is important to acknowledge that populists have a completely false idea about culture. Wanting to defend a precious national culture against foreign influences assumes that culture was once created in a kind of vacuum. But in reality it is always born – literally every moment! – in an atmosphere of openness, interaction and fusion, and can only survive in this same way. If we focus on typical Dutch culture, we can see that many elements have a foreign background. Windmills were first created in China. Cheese was first made in Poland. Potatoes, part of many traditional Dutch dishes, originally came from South America, and tulips originally came from Kazakhstan. Even the colour orange goes back to the French town Orange. (See the book Een verzonnen koninkrijk by Flip van Doorn for more on this.) Populists, however, do not like things to be open, they prefer to keep things closed. By doing so, they are actually killing the very thing they want to protect: culture.

The right direction

When it comes to populism I have to think about Robert Frost’s famous poem about the two roads diverging in a wood. But times have changed since the poem was written a century ago. Choosing the right direction, away from populism, is not a question of taking the road less travelled, but daring to enter a largely untrodden field that is stretching out before us. All we need for this is the courage to explore the unknown without preconceived ideas, with an open mind – as is done, for example, by Charles Eisenstein, who argues that we are in between stories and are moving to ‘a new and ancient story’ of Interbeing. There’s a good chance, though, that it’s not only the populists who have forgotten that we were all born with this open, courageous mind. In this respect, we all need to continually ask ourselves whether we are still heading in the right direction.

Vulnerability and mindfulness

The popular American researcher and storyteller Brené Brown has pointed out in her many talks and books that vulnerability – and not toughness as one would perhaps expect – is essential to being courageous. In her view, one implies the other and they cannot exist separately. This means that to find the right direction we have to first rediscover our own vulnerability, something that we all – like open mindedness – have known when we were small children. In this respect, I think it is a source of hope that practices like meditation and mindfulness have become so popular today and have largely lost their label of being ‘alternative’ or ‘escapist’. Regularly allowing time for silence and patience in our noisy, hurried world, will trigger our mind to revive its original open nature and inspire us to act from that position.

Cell membrane

Fortunately, the latest discoveries in science are helping us as well. Biologist Bruce Lipton argues in his book The Biology of Belief that knowledge about cells can tell us a lot about ourselves. He shows that cells can only grow when their membrane is open to environmental influences, and that their growth stops when their membrane closes. And you can’t have it both ways: it is one or the other. Lipton believes this idea is very important because it also helps us to better understand ourselves, and the way we deal with our environment. After all, we are a community of trillions of specialised cells that organise themselves in cooperation with one another. We can only grow – biologically, psychologically, and spiritually – when we are open to the world around us, and we stop growing when we close ourselves off.

A permanent fight-or-flight response

Lipton emphasises that having our fight-or-flight response continually on, means that we must spend all our energy on our defence mechanisms and simply stop growing. As pointed out earlier, this kind of response to life is particularly strong among populists. For instance, it turns them into persistent climate change deniers. We should not forget, however, that in nature, being open is the rule and the fight-or-flight response should be the exception. We are all born to keep growing. When our innate impulse to grow is blocked for longer periods, this unavoidably has serious consequences: it will search for a way out, in a destructive way. The increasing polarisation in many countries can be seen as the result of fearfully keeping our minds closed, of blocking our natural growth process. William Blake pointed this out more than two hundred years ago, when he stated in his Proverbs of Hell: ‘Expect poison from the standing water.’

Populist politicians claim to represent the neglected voice of ‘the people’. When I think back to John Lennon singing power to the people half a century ago, I try to imagine what kind of people he wanted to give power to. I believe he wasn’t thinking about people who allow themselves to be tricked into a collective fight-or-flight response, but about true, mature individuals who manage to keep their minds open; and who, by remaining vulnerable and courageous, are heading in the right direction.


Few readers will probably realise that this is my 50th blog post on Leiden Law Blog! An opportunity perhaps to read some more that might have escaped your attention?


Wim Bonis

Thanks Kevin for your comments. To get a better understanding of the phenomena I write about I always like to look at them from a few different angles, to put them in a wider - and hopefully more interesting - context. I'm glad you can appreciate it.

Blake's one liner just happened to cross my mind while I was writing this blog. It is quite amazing indeed that he still makes a lot of sense in our time. Twitter would have been a good medium for his messages.

Kevin Walsh

I love the quote from Blake!
There are two different words in the slogans of the US and UK populist camps that have a common link to this dangerous stagnation..."again", from Trump's MAGA, and "back" from the Brexiteers' "take back control". Both refer to a past when things were better, and populist supporters have been brainwashed into believing that re-creating those same old times is essential. You're right to stress that it is actually the opposite, that openness, and change, are necessary for survival. Interesting that you have a supporting argument from cellular biology for this!

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