Better Animals: The (Un)Natural Necessity of Heroic Engagement

This article originally appeared in

One afternoon a while back, I was walking to work when I felt something on my sock. It felt like a tug, the kind you might feel when walking past a bush or a branch on the ground. I reached down without looking to brush away the feeling, at which point I was stung ruthlessly by a good-for-nothing yellow jacket.

The pain was intense. It felt as though a sword had been stabbed deep into my bone. I looked around to see if I could see what stung me, and, sure enough, there was the little bastard struggling to survive on ground. As it shook and shivered its way to potential safety, I felt no mercy.

I swiftly and unthinkingly took the life of the yellow jacket by ferociously stepping on it.



A few days later, I noticed these yellow jackets swarming right near the place I was stung. This time I was walking with my family. Instead of continuing to walk on the sidewalk and risk being stung again, I guided my family to walk into the street and to avoid contact with the yellow jackets. My son had no idea why we were acting strangely, so I explained to him that there are a bunch of stinging insects on the sidewalk and we don’t want to walk past and risk being stung like I was a few days earlier.

It’s Only Natural

I did this because I am a human being. Really, I did this because I am an animal.

This is precisely how we act when we perceive danger: we avoid it at all costs. It is our instinct. I was hiking just the other day and my friend thought he heard a bear groaning (which is a real possibility where were). He started yelling into the woods, telling me we need to make big noises and keep walking because bears will avoid us if we sound big. As terrifying as the prospect of being the final meal for a mama bear just before hibernation is, it is a good example of our survival instinct. It keeps us safe by keeping us out of situations that could hurt or kill us.

We often avoid passing through certain neighborhoods for the same reasons. There is a perceived risk, so we just don’t even interact. We isolate ourselves from others in order to insulate ourselves from danger. I used to live in Peoria, Illinois, which is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. There are few areas of the city that are integrated in any measurable way. I know that for white people there are parts of the city they just won’t go to. I am not sure if it is the same for the black community, but one could imagine there is a narrative of fear and the need to avoid going to ‘that part of town’ on both sides of the divide.

These stories we tell are much like the one I told my son about the yellow jackets. All I had to say was that we avoid that sidewalk because there are bad or dangerous insects in ‘that part of town’.

“I got stung once, you know. You don’t want that to happen to you, do you? Because it is pretty much a guarantee it will if you don’t listen to me.”

“Bill heard that one of his coworkers’ wives was assaulted down there. You just can’t trust that you’ll be safe if you go alone into that neighborhood. That’s why we stay away from those more ‘diverse’ parts of town.”

“You know, Johnny went to the Krogers up north and he was arrested just for looking suspicious. Just for being black, I say. That’s why we stay away from those white folks.”

And then you have people like me telling you the importance of transcending thinking that isolates us from everyone else. People like me encourage you to do something unnatural. We implore you to transcend your fears and to engage in conversations and relationships across lines of difference. We say it isn’t enough to tolerate or coexist — you need to seek to know and understand the other in order for there to be hope for change in our world.

But I don’t know. I mean, I’m not transcending my animal nature and strolling down the sidewalk where I got stung in the leg. I’m not engaging the yellow jackets in new ways to seek to understand their perspective. I’m perfectly content to avoid that part of the sidewalk until those yellow jackets move away and become someone else’s problem.

So why would we act differently with human beings?

What We Know

H. Edward Ransford wrote in the American Journal of Psychology (Vol. 73, №5) in 1968 about the effect of isolation on violent extremism. In his essay, which uses the famous Watts Riot as a case study, he notes that isolation is a key factor in determining a violent response to oppression. He writes, “Among the powerless and the dissatisfied, racial isolation has a strong effect upon violence commitment. Conversely, data show that isolation is much less relevant to violence for those with feelings of control in the system and for the more satisfied” (AJP, 587). Essentially, when people feel less in control and who are unsatisfied with their situations, they are more likely to become violent when they are also isolated from others who differ from them.

It would seem that these feelings of powerlessness and dissatisfaction, whether real or imagined, along with relative social isolation led to what took place in Charlottesville in August and St. Louis over the weekend. When we humans are not engaging in conversations across lines of difference, we are constantly at risk of further breaking an already fractured world. What was true 50 years ago remains to be true today.

A lack of engagement is clearly dangerous. We can’t afford to take the easy path of treating each other like yellow jackets, for when we do, we also will tend towards crushing the other for the slightest offense the way I stomped the life out of the offending bug.

I think we intuitively know that these divisions are dangerous to our future. I also think we generally lack the motivation to move beyond our animal instincts in relation to one another. It is much easier to maintain the status quo of avoidance (or tolerance or coexistence) than it is to do the hard and painful work of interaction and engagement.

Most of us don’t feel that heroic most days.

The Blessing of Forty Five

When Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th President of the United States, many people woke up to the reality that we can no longer continue to live in isolation from one another. Some of those people found one another, and started crafting ways for people to move from isolation to engagement. The One America Movement, currently in its pilot stage, is getting people together across religious or political or cultural lines to do a service project and break bread. The People’s Supper is also getting people to talk to and listen to one another at the table. SE7EN FAST, which is based around Ramadan, is doing the same thing by helping people find out how to break bread with Muslims all over the U.S. And ING has compiled myriad ideas and opportunities for people to do the hard and heroic work of knowing our neighbors.

All of these opportunities (and many others) exist because of one fundamental belief: we cannot do better if we don’t know our neighbors. We will continue to activate our animal instincts, we will continue to move further apart, and we will all become more extreme in our thinking about each other.

A different, better world is possible, but it will take heroes and heroines willing to be uncomfortable and vulnerable to make that better world possible.

Will you be a hero?


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