Reptilian Lessons

A desert tortoise named “Spike” has been a member of our family for almost thirty years. No, we did not purchase him or find him in the desert. One day, he simply came trudging up the sidewalk when my girls were playing out front. You can imagine their excitement when they brought him to me! Although we advertised for months around the neighborhood, no one came forward to claim him and so he stayed. Spike (so named because he liked to “spike” soccer balls) lives in our backyard from April to October and burnates (like hibernation) in our garage the other six months of the year. When he first comes out of burnation, he is sleepy and confused, much like Rip Van Winkle. But in the summer months, he becomes fully awake, is amazingly fast-paced, and chases us around, snapping at our shoes or exposed toes.

Living with a tortoise has taught me many life lessons over the years. His very “otherness” as a reptile is endlessly fascinating. Although his eyes look uncannally intelligent, his brain is downright prehistoric and he reacts to danger predictably. Provoked even in the slightest, he withdraws into his shell and will not come out until the threat has passed. However, when trust develops, Spike can be annoyingly persistent in his need to get my attention. I feel gratified when he comes running when I call him, when he follows me around while I do yardwork. I do not love it when he stealthfully sneaks up on me and wants to take a bite out of my flesh (believe me, it hurts) while I am meditating.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from living in close proximity with a tortoise is how similar we are despite our vast differences. Science has revealed that when human beings are threatened, a biochemical reaction takes place in the brain and we naturally assume a reptilian cold stance (or mind). That is, like the tortoise, we immediately withdraw to protect ourselves, escape down a trapdoor somewhere inside, and will not venture out again until the proverbial coast is clear. Unfortunately, even though this tendency can keep us from harm at times, it can also make us paranoid, an irregularity of the mind.

Interestingly, the first word in the synoptic gospels that Jesus speaks is the word “metanoia,” which turns out is the opposite of paranoia. Oftentimes we are taught that the word means “repent,” but the meaning goes far deeper than the idea of “paying back” what one has done wrong. The metanoia (meta = above; nous = mind) Jesus calls us to is a radical change of mind and heart. He tells us over and over with the actions of his life and death that we need to resist our reptilian impulses, get above our small-mindedness, and live open-heartedly in trust. This becomes problematic for most of us. In a sense, we have to consciously go against our natural self-preservation impulses to be true followers of Jesus. (Maybe that’s why many cannot really do it?) Too easily, we become hostile instead of hospitable; bitter and resentful instead of joyful and free of regrets. In the second half of life, we wrestle over and over with God, especially when something horrific like the deaths of innocent children happens.

Sometimes when faced with the darker sides of life, I feel just like Spike and want to simply withdraw until the danger passes. Unfortunately, that never happens for long on this side of the veil. More than anything, I do not want to end up a bitter old person barricaded against the world who cannot or will not face life in all its splendor. And so, I breathe deeply, pray daily, and force myself up and out of my reptilian brain. I stick my head out of its shell and follow the Light of the World, no matter the cost.

4 thoughts on “Reptilian Lessons”

    1. Wanted to add, I get the deeper meaning of sticking ones head out like Spike! Be the change you desire.


  1. Thank you for this story. I very much agree with your advice not to hide, but to be open to experience and reality.


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