Play dead

Last night, our 70 lbs pit bull, Tuesday, was up to no good. I heard what sounded like something busting down a section of our fence. Calling out to Tuesday to no response indicated that something was awry. In the dark, I explored the fence line, finding our misfit dog, who led me to the matter at hand – an obviously dead opossum. The scene was pretty grim but this was not Tuesday’s first rodeo with a critter so I was not shocked, just annoyed that I’d have to dispose of the varmint. What was new about this situation, however, was that upon closer investigation, I noticed tiny baby opossums emerging from around the body. Good grief!

After sequestering Tuesday, I returned to the scene of the crime to better assess the scope of my evening’s work. To my surprise, the opossum was sitting up gathering her babies. She was obviously in distress because she did not flee from me, but it was clear that she was alive and getting her affairs together.

When an animal fakes death – we’ve all heard it called “playing possum” – they are deploying what is technically called “apparent death,” or “thanatosis” (Thanatos is Greek for death). This defense mechanism is intended to make an attacker back off. It’s a way of getting out of a fight alive. It is the ultimate passive aggressive move.

Whether it’s at work, home, or internally, sometimes I feel as though I’m a 10 lbs mama opossum up against a 70 lbs pit bull: there is simply no getting out of the situation unless and until whatever I’m facing backs off, relents, or loses interest. When I find myself in this position, however, it is never when my interests alone are at risk. It’s always when something for which I am responsible for protecting is threatened or put at risk because of my vulnerability in the situation. When it’s only about me, my pride will usually take the reigns and go full bore against whatever is challenging me.

Playing possum, especially when you have other interests involved that are more important than the victory at hand, can allow you to live to fight another day. Like dealing with rudeness, there is no reason to die on a hill unnecessarily for an unwinnable fight. When they lose interest because you’ve played dead, you get away with what matters most. This approach can work well when dealing with fights that are not only unwinnable in the technical sense, but also not strategically worth fighting. Sometimes utter disengagement is the only way. We mustn’t rule out death as a way to new life.

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