Rediscovering Our Protective Instincts

Give my your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

~Emma Lazarus~

I sat around a campfire with friends and family on the Fourth of July. Several young adults playfully wrestled and poked each other, posing fiercely but still laughing and intending no harm. Bear, one of the dogs present at the fire, jumped up each time one of them moved, ready to defend the person he saw at a disadvantage.

I thought of the protective instinct visible in many pack animals. Humans are known to have this instinct too, although we usually think of it as a maternal instinct instead of one including men. I also thought of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor which so many of the immigrants to the United States passed as they entered our country for the first time.

The saying suggests that we see ourselves as a refuge for the downtrodden and a place of refuge for the oppressed. Even if we didn’t always welcome every refugee with open arms, we have used our vast resources to help people around the world in their struggles with poverty, hunger and oppression. Over the past century, we came to see ourselves as the world’s savior. Those we wanted to help have not always seen us the way we see ourselves. To them, it might look like we see our way of life as ideal for everyone and want to impose it on the rest of the world.

For this reason among others, we have come to be seen as a threat to long-established cultures and traditions. Despite our high opinion of ourselves, an honest appraisal will help us realize that we have not always done a great job at home welcoming newcomers or even those who were here before us. Consider the way we treated Native Americans, our history of slavery and lingering racial hatred, our treatment of women and of those with differing sexual orientations or identity.

I’m not suggesting we have done no good in the world. I just think we could do better. Where to start? I think we need to begin in our own hearts. When we are successful, we tend to become smug and think we are better than anyone else. We also see others as jealous of what we have and tend to protect ourselves from those who want what we have. Consider our nuclear arsenal and attempts to build a fence around our country tall enough to keep others out. Immigrants tend to be seen as threats to our wealth and power. We forget that the great majority of us came here as immigrants or are descendants of immigrants. We were all newcomers once.

We need to remember that it’s not just outsiders who are struggling. Plenty of people within our borders struggle for enough food to feed their children and to find a respectable job. We have work to do at home too. Let’s get busy.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Be humble and don’t gloat over your good fortune.
  • Be thankful for what you have.
  • Consider ways to share your good fortune with others.
  • Help others find the opportunities you had.
  • Celebrate others’ good fortune.



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