Tackling Life’s Storms:
A lesson from Nature
Buffalo and cattle, like many animals, can sense when a storm is coming. However, their strategies for taking on life’s storms couldn’t be more different. Cattle instinctively protect themselves by turning away and attempting to outrun the storm. When the storm is headed the same direction, the cattle often find themselves exposed to the brutal elements even longer, unable to outrun the storm despite their best efforts. By the time the storm passes, the cattle are depleted and weary, having elongated their suffering through their efforts of trying to avoid the rough conditions.
Buffalo, unlike their cattle cousins, approach this same challenge in a completely different way. When sensing the approaching storm, the buffalo will turn toward it and charge – running directly into, and ultimately through, the storm. Buffalo come out on the other side of the storm more quickly, exposed to brutal conditions for a shorter period of time.
As a former biologist, I love learning from Nature’s inherent wisdom; as a therapist who specializes in trauma and addiction, I have seen each of these styles present in my office. Some show up in the middle of the storm asking for help, guidance and direction to face it in order to come out on the other side. Fully facing and confronting the reality of their present and past can be excruciating while in the thick of it, but the relief they feel when they emerge on the other side of the storm is evident and long-lasting.
Other clients show up distressed, but despite being miserable, they mirror the cattle’s strategy of seeking tools to outrun or avoid the storm. They erroneously think the problem is the storm and not their tendencies to run or hide from their reality. They may go to great lengths to minimize, rationalize, or avoid addressing the core issues. They may come to therapy for years discussing one crisis after the next without getting to the core issue. It feels like therapeutic whack-a-mole, where we find ourselves not having made much progress, despite consistent sessions. Other clients – who are too overwhelmed, scared, or not yet ready to face their core issues – avoid them by dropping out of therapy or numbing out with detrimental behaviors ranging from compulsive busy-ness, workaholism, gaming, excessive social media, sexual compulsivity, substance abuse, etc. In the end, their efforts fail as the storm engulfs them, and frequently those closest to them as well. Sometimes the rock bottom moments are essential to help people realize that the pain of not changing exceeds that of making change. They learned for themselves that insanity truly is doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results; and found the motivation to exchange their old strategy for a new one. This nascent openness invites new possibilities of healing and growth.
As an IFS-informed therapist, I recognize that things aren’t quite so black and white. I now recognize parts of myself in both the buffalo and the cattle. When faced with my own life storms, I can acknowledge that, depending on the circumstance, parts of me may be eager to charge the storm, while other parts want to run and hide. When both of these parts are activated, I might find myself deeply conflicted and burdened by internal fighting and chaos. Until I am able to accept that both of these parts exist and internalize that there are no bad parts, I myself can get stuck on the hamster wheel; constantly running but getting nowhere.
Now I can see the good in both parts. The buffalo (my more dominant part) is brave, but sometimes impulsive or reactive in the way it responds to threats. Whereas the cattle parts may know that some storms in life we simply have to endure. What’s beautiful is when we are able to embrace the wisdom of both parts, we become more flexible and have greater options for healing. The cattle learn from the buffalo that running away from unresolved issues will ultimately fail because the storm lies within us. The old saying, “The only way out is through”, aptly applies here. In contrast, the cattle may know that sometimes, when the storm rages around us, we simply need to be calm and allow things to work out. By accepting both parts as good and learning to appreciate their unique wisdom, we open ourselves up to greater possibilities and ultimate healing.
I feel this metaphor is beautifully summed up by the age-old Serenity prayer… “God grant me to wisdom to accept the things I cannot change [cattle], courage to change the things I can [buffalo], and wisdom to know the difference.”
In closing, I pray you find healing in whatever storm you currently find yourself through incorporating the wisdom of your buffalo and cattle parts when facing life’s storms. When the storms rage within, may you find the courage to “buff up”, charge the storm, to find clearer skies and greater peace on the other side. When the storm is not of your making, may you find a supportive herd to help you face the inevitable storm, and not give up until the storm has passed, which it always will!
May you learn to embrace and love all your parts as you strive to be led by your highest self, is my humble prayer and wish for you.
Heather Putney, PhD, Therapist, Wife, Mom, part buffalo, part cattle, flawed, yet happy human.