Over the last few days, I have heard random people list their hatreds. People hate (insert food). They hate (insert weather). They hate (insert animal). They hate (insert political candidate/person). They hate (insert religion). They hate (insert ethic/cultural group). They hate (insert sexual orientation). They hate (insert occupation). “Hate” is an incredibly strong word and while it may seem okay to use it when describing momentary discomforts (like the weather) or preferences (such as one food versus another), the word has much more significance when used to describe characteristics that one cannot choose (such as place of birth) or the core values of others (like religion).
Every time I hear the word, I think of a song from the musical “South Pacific”. The musical is set during World War II, a tumultuous time that defined my parents’ youth and early adulthood. My father fought in the war. My mother watched her brothers, cousins, and friends go to war. So, the musical (and its lessons) stuck with me. One song in particular declared, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear…You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8…. You’ve got to be carefully taught” (Rodgers & Hammerstein). I grew to understand that hate was a strong word, a word that caused “terrible things” and I carried this lesson into my professional understanding of hatred.
Psychologically speaking, hate and fear do go together. They are both emotions and as such, they are both physiologically based. They are set in motion by the hypothalamus and trigger our autonomic and endocrine systems to activate. In essence, they both involve the arousal of our “fight or flight” response. Our respiration changes, our perspiration changes, our muscle tension changes, our digestion is impacted. They also both have a cognitive or learned component that helps us cope with the “fight or flight” response. The physiological responses are similar: the cognitive element is based on how we define the situation we are in, and the definition is based, in large part, on what we are taught by our families, our friends, our society as a whole. Just as Rodgers & Hammerstein warned us in “South Pacific”, our culture and our own experiences can teach us to fear or to hate just about anything.
Yet, fear and hate do have their differences. Fear is defined as a response to a serious threat to our well-being. Hatred is defined more loosely – as we can see by the number of ways we are able to use the word in a sentence. Fear is a closed system, by that I mean it often turns us insular; the goal is to protect ourselves. Sometimes, this may include protecting those we care about, but in either case, it tends to reduce the size of the circle. We must protect ourselves and those we love from what is “out there” – an idea that blends well with the development of hatred. Hatred is the justification for reducing the circle: we must keep those things/people out because they will hurt us. As the circle tightens, the mechanism for keeping others out must be enhanced.
Before you know it, we consider building walls, believing they can keep us safe. Humans have been doing this for centuries. We have built forts, castles, and electric fences – all designed to keep “us” safe and “them” out. In this physical sense, walls are seen as a way to protect us and enhance our sense of well-being. Clearly, in some ways this is true. It is better to live in a home than on the street. However, psychologically speaking, walls have a very different connotation. Walls keep us from sharing who we are, they stunt our growth, and they keep us from going outside of our comfort zone. They are things we hide behind. They are things that block us from our emotions, from our ability to see inside (or let others see inside), or from moving to a new or better place. By building these walls, we limit our ability to achieve our full potential. In a psychological context, walls isolate us, make us feel that the only one we can trust is ourselves, lead us to feel more fear because we KNOW we cannot survive on our own.
I can go on and on about psychological walls, but I think Paul Simon gave a remarkably good summary of what it is like to live inside the walls we build: “I’ve built walls, a fortress deep and mighty, that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain. It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain. I am a rock, I am an island…A rock feels no pain, and an island never cries” (Simon, Paul. EMI Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group). Whenever I hear that song, I feel sad. Ironically, even though Paul Simon doesn’t want to care about anyone, the words evoke empathy and I share the pain of his situation. If we were all to build walls, we would block out that key human quality of empathy, something even infants are capable of experiencing. If you have ever been in the presence of a group of newborns, you would know that when one cries, they all begin to cry. It would seem to be a collaborative effort setting out an alert for the adults “out there” to come and do something to help. Toddlers will share their blanket with others who are in distress. The fact that these behaviors are present without training speaks volumes about their survival benefit; our instincts tell us we need each other.
Fear of other humans is not innate; it is, as I said before, taught. The fact that we must teach “stranger danger” speaks volumes. I am not suggesting that we eliminate teaching our children about the danger of some strangers, but I am cautioning about how far we have taken this. We need to consider how the fear of others has grown too expansive. We need to evaluate the criteria we are using to define strangers and question the validity of these criteria. We need to carefully consider how much fear we instill in children when we tell them that physicians, police officers, teachers, babysitters, relatives, all possess some element of danger. We must consider what this level of fear is doing to us. When our neighbors become defined as strangers, when we don’t look at the people we pass in the corridors at work, when we assume that most people are evil, we create a world where our fight or flight system is always on, where our bodies are physically taxed, and where our emotional life is drained. We add to our stress because when we do need to reach out (we are sick and need someone to get our medicine; we lost our wallet and need money for public transportation; we are lost and our phone is out of battery), our circle is so small that those within it may not be able to or available to provide the needed assistance.
It is crucial that we expand our thinking and come to recognize that there are billions of good people “out there”. We cannot be fooled into thinking that the “bad” we see on the news on a daily basis represents all of humanity. We know that is not true. My heartfelt belief is that we need to develop mutual dependence and recognize that we are not meant to survive on our own; we are meant to survive and thrive as a group.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -Edmund Burke
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