Follow Your Instincts

by Stefani on 26-February-2010

Chipping Sparrow, Looking at Us Looking at Him

Yesterday, I was sitting near a window, reading Julie of the Wolves. This is rare, this sitting and reading… more rare than I’d like. Our little dog though had just returned from surgery (the kind that will prevent his ever attaining fatherhood) and he needed some quiet company.

So we sat and I read and petted him. I was thinking, of course, about Julie’s adventures with the wolves and how she had to learn to communicate with them in their own language. I was also thinking about our Jasper and how he has instincts all his own. He knows that he is supposed to claim his bit of earth. He knows that something deep in him is wary of larger animals, especially male dogs and those towering humans. He knows that we are his pack and he knows his rank among us. He knows these things without having been told. Something inside him understands without words.

As we sat there I happened to look up from my reading and out the window. A male house finch was perched near a bird house which hangs by a bit of rope-like twine. He deftly removed one long strand and flew away. He will not build his nest, but he will supply much of the material to his mate. His job will be gathering and singing – his version of provision and protection. No one told him it was time to do this. No one told him how. He just knows – a deep, inexplicable, wordless knowledge that he cannot, would not, disregard.

All of this has me thinking. Where have our instincts gone?

Don’t get me wrong, I do realize that some of the most wonderful things about humankind are results of our ability to rise above our instincts. We will help the weak or the needy without regard for our own preservation. We will make beautiful music, poetry and art that have little to do with our survival. We have the ability to reason and think beyond our biology.


in all our ability to think past the great drive to preserve our genetics, I wonder if have we LOST the ability to listen to our instincts?

I think of how long it took me, when my first child was new, to stop listening to the advice and reading the books and summon up my own powers of instinct. I think of how often I still wonder if I am doing the right thing. A mother wolf never wonders, does she?

I think how so often I find myself chasing after an idea, forcing an issue, long after, deep down, I knew I was going the wrong way. All those birds and butterflies beginning now to head north – they never doubt the direction they’ve taken, do they?

I wonder just what I would know, what we all would know, if we were able to hear those long forgotten voices within. That voice we call instinct. I wonder what it would be like to just know.


I hope that you’ll join me over at Simple Homeschool today. I’ve written my first post there and it flows nicely into this discussion of instinct. It’s all about RE-finding your homeschooling direction when you seem to have lost your way. I think that really it is a great topic of discussion for all parents, not just homeschoolers.

Cassandra February 26, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Thanks for sharing. These are inspirational thoughts for sure, and something to ponder deeply.

Grandfather February 26, 2010 at 5:58 pm

I think God gave animals strong instincts to guide them because he didn’t give them a free will to choose the path they would take like He did for us. We get to make choices that have consequences, an awesome responsibility and an incredible privilege and opportunity. He also gave us the extended family to guide us with their collective wisdom and experience.

That’s the way it’s been since the dawn of civilization. I’ve heard it said that things started changing around the time of the Industrial Revolution where a boy no longer spent his younger days with his mother and his adolescent days with his father working in the shop or the field. Fathers began leaving for the day to go the factory or the office. Young men moved away to find work leaving their extended family behind and had to fend for themselves when it came to the skills of sensible living, finding a mate, being married, raising kids, and so forth.

It takes an extended family and a community of mature friends to have the wisdom and counsel necessary to lead a successful life. Instincts are not a human’s strong suit…by design.

Stefani February 26, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Well… I agree, but also disagree. I do think that you are right, that because we have free will we don’t have to rely only on instinct. I agree too that part of the confusion is our move away from community and extended family relationships.

I don’t agree though that humans don’t have God given instincts. I really do think that we have lost our ability to hear them. I think about native peoples… American Indian and the Inuit for example. I think that they were more attuned to themselves, the natural world and their place in it. I think that their bodies were more adapted to changing seasons, and their senses more aware. Consider the way that a blind person will develop a more keen sense of hearing. I really think that the way we live, detached from the processes of life and from the natural world, that our instincts have been dulled, quieted.

You raise an interesting point though, that humans naturally have LESS need for instinct if we have community and elders, but I don’t think that we have NO need for them.

Grandfather February 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm

Agree. Could it be that our instincts can be developed and changed for good or ill unlike other creatures for which they are fixed?

Stefani February 27, 2010 at 10:15 am

No, I don’t think so. I think that we can choose to listen or not to listen, where animals do not, but I don’t think that means that we “change” our instincts.
I think, as you said via email, that the problem with discussion is word choice, or defining “instinct.” I don’t mean the cultural definition which would more accurately be called “feelings” or “desires” I mean real biological instinct.

I’m not saying we should feel our way through life “listening to our heart.” I think that kind of thing, departed from morality, faith, community and gathered wisdom, can get you into a lot of trouble. In fact I think so much of the trouble we face is, as you say, a departure from living in community with our elders.

What I’m saying is that people undeniably have instincts, but that I wonder to what extent we’ve lost them since we no longer need them to survive and since we now have so many competing voices in our lives.

In any culture, a smile is a smile and a frown is a frown. No one teaches us that.

Babies are born knowing that they need to suck. They follow a predictable progression… they will learn to grasp, to roll over, to crawl, to mimic the facial expressions of adults, to listen more carefully to their own mother’s voice.

In the same way, I think that we have instincts as parents, but that it is harder for us now, living as we do, to hear them.

With Luke, for example, I knew deep down that he was the kind of kid that needed more reassurance, more comforting. He needed to be held, A LOT. However, the doctors, the books, the elders, all said that I would “spoil him” if I did that. As a result, I really struggled with what to do – follow conventional wisdom or follow that internal voice that says, “your baby is crying, hold him.” As a new mother I didn’t know how to follow my instincts and I didn’t know if it was right to do so.

I think NOW as a more seasoned mother of three, I know that it takes BOTH the wise council of my family/community AND my instincts… carefully balanced. The wisest course of action with my needy baby would have been to listen to myself and to him, to hold him more and to know that he needed help finding his ability to comfort himself. He needed more than to “cry it out.” Yes, at some point he needed to learn to soothe himself and sleep on his own, but my instincts told me that he would take more time to get there. I wish I had listened.

What I meant, when I wrote this post was only that watching the birds and thinking about the wolves has me wondering what added benefit we are missing, what would be added to our decision making abilities, if were better tuned the messages written in our make up.

Visty March 4, 2010 at 8:33 am

I read a very interesting scientific report years ago about a scientist who was studying eyes. He ended up discovering something he did not expect: that our eyes can only do what they have been taught to do. You might have heard about the sad experiments with the baby kittens who were left in the dark for a certain amount of time after birth. Even after coming out, they were never anything but blind.
This scientist went into Africa and worked with native people there. He was walking with one man one day, a man who had been raised in heavy bush/jungle, and they somehow were walking on a plain. (I tried to find this on google and could not.) The scientist saw a large animal in the distance, and showed it to the man. The man thought it was a small animal. He laughed and laughed at the tiny animals they had on the Savannah, not understanding the rule of perspective at all. This African man had never, in his entire life, looked at anything from a great distance. And so, his eyes could not transmit to his brain, and his brain could not comprehend, a large rhino a few hundred yards away.

I believe our instincts change according to what we create around us. I do not have an instinct for when to plant maize, but I have a really good instinct about when a car is going to pull out in front of me, or when a child is about to catch his fingers in a library door, even if it’s not my child. The native bushman mother would be useless to her child in our society. And we would likely starve and die from exposure were we plunked into the Bush.

Our senses and our brains are adapted to our environment, which, unfortunately, is an artificial one we ourselves have created. As we grow in those environments, our bodies adapt to give us what we need. In that way, in my opinion, it is still instinct.

And I do agree that we do not listen to our instincts nearly often enough.

Stephanie, I’ve said it before but your writing inspires me. Your essays are like lovely winding roads that lead right back to home, and I am always excited to see what you’ve done next. Is the house next door to you for sale, by any chance?

Visty March 4, 2010 at 8:35 am

And I know there is no E on the end of your name! Gah!! It’s very early here.

Visty March 4, 2010 at 8:36 am

Next time you comment on my blog, you can call me Vesta.

Stefani March 5, 2010 at 9:04 am

‘Sup Vesta? 😛

Have I told you lately that you’re brilliant? Because you are!
That makes so much sense, and yet I didn’t even consider it. I’m sure that we DO have some instincts (though maybe learned through experience rather than innate) that are more relevant to our current way of life.
I read somewhere a long time ago that in people who live in southern climates, the veins are much closer to the surface of the skin in order to better release heat and cool the body. In fact, when a northerner moves to a southern climate, after several years, her veins will “migrate” closer to the skin. I found that totally fascinating. Now, I realize that has little to do with instinct, but it does show that our physiology has some interplay with our environment.

Thanks for taking me a little farther down that “lovely winding road”… your ideas have given me lots to explore and new paths to go down. I’m so glad you’re here.

Jessica February 26, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Thank you so much, that was exactly what I needed to hear today.

lora February 27, 2010 at 8:54 am

i think you should write a book. i’m sure i’m not the only person who’s ever told you that, but it’s true. you are great at saying things. this is awesome. and SO true. we have drown out our instincts with social norms, cultural expectations, fears and lies and motivations outside of what God calls us to.
I’m not going to pretend to know what was intended for us vs. the wild animals in instinct over free will of choice, but i feel like the never ending process of seeking Him, sitting with Him, hearing Him and obeying Him has slowly broken off chunks of what has built up and corroded the innate in myself. And yet I have SO much more to learn. 🙂
This is a great topic starter. I’m sure i’ll be pondering it all day.

Stefani March 5, 2010 at 8:53 am

You are too kind, Lora. Thank you.
I think that you may have touched upon one of the most meaningful differences between us and animals… we have to CHOOSE to seek after our maker, choose to hear that voice. And yes, the learning does seem to go on and on, does it not. Funny… when I was a young girl, I sort of thought I’d be done learning by the time I was a mama. Far from it! I feel like I know less and less all the time 🙂

Michele February 27, 2010 at 4:44 pm


I’ve been away from your blog for awhile. As usual, it was like a breath of fresh air. I love your insight. Your children are blessed. 🙂

Jennifer February 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm

This is a great post! I found your blog through your article at simple homeschool. You’re right this post about instinct goes along nicely with the homeschool article. I want to homeschool my sons, 3 years and 10 months but I need to get my husband on board. I’m not sure if it’s instinct or feelings or what but I just know it would be best for them. I had a similar struggle as you with both of my sons, who were both high needs-would only sleep touching me and would only nurse neither ever took a bottle, and after my experiences I do believe that we do have some instincts. For example, my second son cried around the clock and the doctors kept telling me he was just colic but I knew he was in pain. Sure enough after a couple months, I discovered he had allergies to milk, wheat, soy and shellfish proteins that were coming through the breastmilk. As long as I avoid those foods, he totally fine.

Stefani March 5, 2010 at 8:56 am

My goodness! What a smart mama you were to listen to that voice inside. I’m so glad to hear that you got it figured out. I know well how heart breaking it is to hear those cries and not know how to help him.

I wish you and your family the best with your schooling decisions too. It can feel like such a leap of faith to take that homeschooling plunge, but for us, it has been such a wonderful way of life.

Jennifer March 3, 2010 at 1:11 pm

I just read this today; and I really needed it right now. Follow your heart and listen to your instincts; both protect us. And it is written, “He will give you the desires of your heart”; so often misread/misapplied, but so very true!

Debbie R March 3, 2010 at 3:42 pm

This was such an interesting topic and one that I have been thinking about recently.

Sometime back in January I read an article from Mothering magazine about breastfeeding and was shocked to read about the Breast Crawl. I had never even heard of this phenomenon. Luckily for me the article mentioned that you could google breast crawl and find links on you tube.

As I watched this breast crawl I was literally brought to tears. I could not beleive my eyes! When I had to have my son delivered by c-section 4 years ago and had subsequent problems with healing I became very depressed. I was depressed because I felt as if I was letting him down by not being able to do virtually anything for him. I even had problems breastfeeding. I was so dissappointed in myself.

When I read the article and viewed the you tube video I was amazed at the instincts of the baby and finally it all made sense to me. My son and myself were essentially robbed of the instinctual bonding that is necessary between mother and child. Go see if you can’t view the video’s and maybe it will give you more clarity or maybe it will do the opposite.
For me it makes sense that we have lost our instincts! And we certainly need somesort of a return to it on so many different levels of our being.

Thanks for a GREAT topic of discussion.

Stefani March 5, 2010 at 9:11 am

I’ve never heard of it, but I will have to look into it! Thank you for that!

I know well those feelings though. I was not able to nurse my middle son (long story) and I still feel like we, the two of us, missed something really special. I don’t think that I failed or that it was something that can’t be recovered, but I do look back on his early days and long for a do over, you know? It really wasn’t until my third baby that I learned to lighten up, relax and just BE with my baby, hear him and listen to myself – to not feel a need to “Do Motherhood” right, but to just be a mama. It makes me really sad that I missed that with my older two.

Thank YOU Debbie for stopping by!

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