Sitting on a rocker on the front porch of my older brother's house in Michigan, smoking a cigar, watching his dogs play (the size of which might cause you to confuse them with small horses) as the summer sun set over the tall pines, I was struck by something.
He has trained his dogs (as many folks have) to stay within bounds of the property using an invisible fence. This is a device that includes a collar for each dog and, when a dog strays past the invisible fence line, it is given a shock of electricity -- the purpose of which is to keep the dogs from running off, doing what they might want or to keep them out of trouble on the street. It is a control device so you can let them seem to roam free but really not allow it.
The interesting thing about these invisible fences for dogs is that, at some point, the dog has been so conditioned by the shock that you can actually take the collar off the dog and it won't ever venture past that imaginary fence line even though a shock isn't coming its way. It has now been drilled into the dog's very being that crossing that line will receive some punishment whether it is true in reality or not anymore.
So many of us have these invisible fences in our heads, trained in the past at some point (as far back as childhood, for some) through negative experiences, messages or even trauma. At the time, we might have developed them as a real protection from a fear or troubled situation, but so many of us now have the collars off and are free to roam in different ways. However, because this "training" earlier runs deep, we still believe it exists. We still believe we will be shocked if we do something that ventures past the invisible fence line.
Most of the fears and inabilities we bring to relationships come from some past shock or trauma and it hampers us in our desire to have a free and healthy interaction. We think if we love someone else we will get hurt or lose them, so we pull back and stay in an old pattern. Or we think the professional chance we might take to do something we love is bound for disaster or failure, so we keep doing what we always have done even though it is without much joy or fulfillment.
We repeat the pattern of past decisions and relationships because we are hampered by these invisible fences that we think are true, and we don't realize the collar fell off long ago (if it ever really existed, for some of us we were told things about the world and this became a verbal collar). It is only after we realize the myth of many of these control rules that we begin to venture out in new ways or try new dynamics in our interactions with others. And for each step when we are not "shocked" we realize what we have been missing and reestablish our own sense of freedom. Most people who operate as victims in their lives bear with great weight a collar which is attached to an invisible fence in their head.
The same is true for our politics and the interactions of many of our leaders within this country and around the globe. Many politicians won't venture to solve problems and compromise because they have bought into the myth of being shocked in elections. As one looks at the results in the past few years, the folks who have lost didn't lose because of bipartisanship, but because they became disconnected from their constituents. They lost not because they tried, but because they took voters for granted.
Big donors and interest groups with agendas of all political persuasions try to keep convincing many politicians that they will be shocked if they venture too far afield. And these elected officials accept this story of an invisible fence line. So these office holders don't try new things. They toe the line and the country suffers, and a majority of us get more and more frustrated by Washington, D.C.'s dysfunctional status quo.
On international relations, the same dynamic plays out. One country doesn't trust another because of some past action or trauma, and doesn't realize that old dynamic is gone, and countries are free to build new and creative alliances to accomplish positive ends. Hate builds for so long that we think it is real and then we won't try new ways to initiate or build relationships in the 21st century.
Because we haven't explored the invisible fences in our minds and realized the collar is off, we, as individuals, as a country and as a globe, our captive to the past. We are free to build healthier relationships with our loved ones, our friends, our families and neighbors, and internationally when we realize what is stopping us. It is not so much the actions of others today that keeps us from joy and peace, but the myth of the invisible fence we have empowered in ourselves.
To that end, I am going to try each day to make a step further out of the yard to show that I won't be shocked. I may make mistakes or get lost a bit along the way, but at least I won't be the prisoner of an invisible fence.
My collar is off. How about yours?
There you have it.
Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.