In 1914, the trench warfare of World War I was unexplainably gruesome. Ten million would die and twice as many would be injured.
But something peculiar happened during Christmas week, 1914. To the dismay of their commanders, the men from opposite sides started celebrating together. At this early stage in the war, the poorly constructed trenches were as little as 30, 50, or 70 yards apart. It was possible for both sides to hurl insults as easily as they could lob mortar. The war had not progressed enough for the opposing forces to stop talking, so when Christmas packages of goodies from home and cigarettes and chocolate from the governments started arriving, happy soldiers changed their tunes from destruction to jubilation.
Stories vary as to what the Germans did to begin the truce, but it may have started with a chocolate cake and a note asking for a ceasefire. An embedded British Daily Telegraph reporter said the British accepted and offered tobacco as a confirming gift. At the appointed time, the Germans began to sing “Silent Night,” placing candles on the sandbags protecting their trench. The Germans shouted for the Brits to join, but they replied, “We’d rather die than sing German.” A German solider retorted, “It would kill us if you did.”
Word spread about the acts of generosity and humor, and the next day, the sounds of artillery and machine guns were lighter, and sometimes entirely silent. The Germans hoisted Christmas trees, decorated with lit candles, onto their parapets and for the next week, men sang throughout the day. For the week around Christmas and New Year’s, it was not surprising to see soldiers from opposite sides mingling together in no man’s land, and bringing gifts all the way to the enemy’s trench.
In the most alarming of circumstances, what would cause these men to focus on the optimal world?
While our alarms try to keep us safe, our learning brains never stop trying to bring other options into our consciousness. No serviceman on either side wanted to spend Christmas in a flooded, stinking trench. Even though every alarm goal of their commanders would be to fight the enemy, the higher yearning of every human brain is for connection and the ability to be free of stress. When they realized it was possible to take control of the battlefield and live a better life even for a week, and live the best possible lives in that moment, they built their optimal world.
Asking for Help
Devin had always been the superstar at work. She joined her advertising firm right out of college, and every year she had been given more and more responsibility. At twenty-nine, she was the youngest director the company had ever had. And, she was ready to quit.
In meetings, she tried to fake her usual enthusiasm. When she was with clients, she put on her normal charm and creatively worked their campaigns. But the same work that had made her the happiest among her friends now made her want a new life.
When Devin came to our office, we asked her to tell the story of when she started to feel stressed. She talked about one client that she just couldn’t make happy. Everything her team did was wrong, even when it was exactly what the client had asked for. So she tried harder. She spent more hours than on any other piece of business. Her efforts helped and the client was still with her company. She hated working for them, but they were a huge part of her bottom line each year and the reason she was promoted.
We asked what her options were, and she said she didn’t have any. We asked her about her favorite people at work, and her face brightened. She talked about her boss, one of the partners, whose office she could plop down in and talk about anything.
We asked if she’d talked about her feelings with him.
She said, “Of course not. I can’t let him think I can’t handle it. We complain about them, sure, but I can’t ask for help.”
We asked why not.
She said, “Because I don’t want anything to get in the way of my becoming partner.”
We asked if she did all her projects alone. “Of course not,” she said, and her eyes widened. We asked if she thought the partner would see her as weak or strong if she asked for help dealing with a difficult client. We wondered out loud if it might not make the partner worry about her that she would keep what she really needed to herself when he’d made clear he wanted to help her.
At our next session, she told us that she chose to talk to him. The partner had always been amazed at how much she had been able to do and happily freed up more resources to help her. All she could talk about with us was how excited she was to love her work again.
The Reactive Chain versus the Optimal Path
At work, at home, and even at war, what allows us to choose peace over violence, the value of human life and the goal of connection over victory and death?
When under stress, it is normal for feelings, both bodily and emotional, as well as our values and goals to be largely based on alarm reactions.
People who follow the optimal path when they have alarm reactions take a different approach. When they feel a stress reaction coming, they step back. With the stress turned down, instead of needing to get away, they choose an optimal goal.
The soldiers in the Christmas truce followed the optimal path. Their brains could so easily have become trapped by stress. The feeling of panic could have become the thought of violence, the goal of killing, and the actions that follow such intentions. What happened in their brains--the focus on feeling the warmth of the holidays, the thought of connection, and the goals of peace--allowed them to choose to celebrate rather than fight.
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Copyright 2012 by Dr. Julian Ford and Jon Wortmann. Reprinted with permission from Sourcebooks from Hijacked by Your Brain. 
Julian Ford, Ph.D. is a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and Director of the University of Connecticut Health Center Child Trauma Clinic and Center for Trauma Response Recovery and Preparedness. He is the creator of the TARGET treatment model for adult, adolescent, and child traumatic stress disorders, and consultant to agencies including the National Institute of Health.
Jon Wortmann is an executive and mental coach, minister, and author of three books. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School, he is a leadership and communication trainer to educational, nonprofit, startup, and Fortune 100 organizations, including Time Warner, ING, and Habitat for Humanity.
[Image: Flickr user Lars Kaislaniemi ]