Don’t Chase the Fox

Overcome harmful instincts

YJ Jun
Human Parts

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Photo by Jeremy Hynes on Unsplash

Mika’s ears perked up when she spotted the fox. It moved like a shadow across the road ahead of us. It was dark, and the only way we knew it wasn’t a cat was because it was slightly too large.

Our Golden Retriever is a good girl. I’m biased, but my claim isn’t completely unfounded. My wife is a certified dog trainer. In every class we’ve taken Mika to — agility, nosework, tricks — she’s exceled. She’s a teacher’s pet outside the classroom, too. She excels at sports like FAST CAT (essentially sprinting) and barn hunt (sniffing rats out of the hay).

As a puppy she never once tore up a sock or chewed at furniture. She doesn’t whine, and she doesn’t snatch food off the table. Outdoors, she curls up under our legs whenever we sit at a bench or table.

No amount of training can eradicate instinct. Mika doesn’t chase after squirrels, but she certainly notices them. We play a game where, if she looks at us instead of the scary or exciting thing, we treat her. It’s a very fun game for everyone involved. Mika gets her beef jerky or freeze-dried shrimp, and we get to keep our arms.

There’s something about this fox on this particular moonlit night. Maybe it’s because, as we walk closer, we see there are actually two. They stand at the corner on our way home. If they turn left, we can go home in peace. If they turn right, we’ll be playing the “Watch me!” game all the way up until our door.

We play another game when Mika starts to tug. We stop, and Mika gets to walk again once she comes back to our side. No matter how many times it takes, we have to play this game till Mika stops tugging. Otherwise, we’d be essentially teaching her, through our behavior, that it’s okay for her to tug. This might be cute every once in a while, but it’s best to keep this behavior in check so that you don’t ever risk your dog tugging his/herself or you into traffic, or towards a potentially dangerous animal.

Once we notice there’s two foxes gliding under the streetlamps, we stop. The leash is taut. Mika looks like a prize dog, or a dog from some old Scottish painting. She leans forward, tail erect, face solemn. Usually she’s trotting, her tail wagging side to side, her tongue flopping out in a perpetual, goofy smile. We call her our little water dragon, named after the eel-like dragons you see in the East.

It’s tempting to justify our own bad behavior with “instinct.” Of course it’s instinct. Evolution’s logic is beautiful. The traits and behaviors that help us survive life are the ones that survive across generations. It’s why Mika’s nose is long and why our eyes are big. It’s why she walks on four legs while we stand upright.

But one of the biggest benefits of being human is that we get to choose whether to act on instinct.

I’m not talking about instincts that you build over a lifetime to decide whether a career or romantic partner is right for you. I’m talking about base desires: eat, fuck, fight. Men no longer have to jump on every female in heat. Though we may compete for resources in indirect ways (e.g. through competing for jobs), very rarely do we have to physically fight over resouces. Hierarchies can be efficient, but thankfully we no longer have to peck each other to death to enforce them.

Mika is a dog, and even she can overcome her instinct to chase down the foxes and rip out their throats.

Certainly we can do better than our dogs. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Our instincts, once essential, now lead to all sorts of disease, mental and physical. We’re wired to be seek sugar. This helped us survive; now, it contributes to diabetes and obesity. The same instincts that drive males to acquire and defend their honor, tribe, partner, and resources might be driving human men to commit violent crimes.

In my own life, I have to give myself grace.

I have a passive aggressive coworker. Let’s call him Jack. We’ve been teamed up the past several weeks on not one but two projects. He nitpicks my work in a way not even my Ph.D. advisor did — and he’s not even in the same field. Jack is a lawyer. Jack also likes to say, “You don’t need a Ph.D. to know that…” in response to my carefully considered explanations.

I am a chipper person. I like to give people more than a benefit of a doubt. When they exhaust all doubt, I like to imagine they’re just facing some kinda trouble, whether it’s having trouble understanding my work, or at home. I can take a swipe.

A couple weeks ago, I found myself throwing up on a highway. Jack was particularly aggressive that morning during a work call. He was moving goal posts all over the soccer field, figuratively speaking. Then, I found out that Jack had been going behind my back to meet with boss and people who have no experience doing what I do to double check my work. (My boss has repeatedly assured us both that he not only agrees with my work, but shouldn’t need to stamp his approval.)

On my way to planned evening activities, my body decided to send a very strong signal: this is not okay. Thank God I managed to pull over in time to hurl on the pavement while cars whizzed past me at 60+ miles per hour.

Our brains process a passive aggressive coworker no differently than a mountain lion: an imminent threat to our safety. Our bodies react accordingly: fight, flight, or freeze.

More than once I have been tempted to send an angry e-mail or worse (fight). I’ve had to take leave (flight) only to feel like I couldn’t relax (freeze).

So I trained myself, with as much discipline as compassion. I played that game: don’t tug. Stand still till you’re ready to move forward calmly.

So I breathed, gathered myself, and channeled these instinctual responses into something more productive. Over and over.

When I felt like fighting, I crafted a neutral e-mail that focused on the practical issues at hand, vented to allies, or learned aggressive K-pop choreography. When I needed to fly, I went for a walk, or took breaks to watch funny videos. When I froze, I mustered what little energy I had to at least play soothing music, or pull up a Wordle game.

It’s a blessing to be human, because animals do not have these options. Their choices are hard-coded and drastic, because the stakes are: life or death.

We do not live in a life-or-death world. While my emotions are valid, Jack is not a threat to my physical safety. He doesn’t even have the power to fire me.

That doesn’t make emotions any less valid. I cherish and honor them. When I need to cry, I cry. But to the extent possible, I channel instincts and the emotions that arise from them into something helpful.

Then, in the same way we reward Mika for doing the right thing, I reward myself. The reward has a further soothing effect, and the cycle reinforces.

Since Jack has started his shenanigans, I have made solid dents in the novels I’m reading and writing, binge-watched a couple great shows, and learned a K-Pop choreography. I’ve started taking Mika for longer morning walks and picked up great meditation techniques.

My boss has already spoken to Jack’s boss. Jack’s entire team is going to hear a lecture about the importance of trusting my team, and Jack will be sitting down with his boss, my boss, and me for a frank discussion.

Most importantly, I don’t give a fuck, because Jack is not important to my life. My life is here, with Mika and my wife, walking in the moonlight watching foxes.

The foxes ahead turn left. Mika gazes after them, then back at us. She melts back into her dragon-like form, all wiggles and smiles. We gift her a handful of treats and smile back at her.

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YJ Jun
Human Parts

Fiction writer. Dog mom. Book, movies, and film reviews. https://yj-jun.com/