By D.S. Leiter, AssertiveSpirituality.com
I have a confession to make. Although I teach and study and write about stress, trauma, and conflict communication, I’ve been keeping myself a bit apart from the recent news that missionary John Allen Chau was killed going into one of the remaining isolated tribes in this global civilization.
There are lots of reasons why I was holding myself back. But a friend finally drew me into the discussion recently, and I realized that my particular areas of interest might give me an alternative angle on the subject to most of those I had seen presented.
Following the tragedy in November of last year, a lot of interesting and worthy discussion has arisen concerning the health of the Christian mission system as a whole, and specifically what led John Allen Chau to go to North Sentinel Island. Important though these questions are, I will not be focusing on them here. Instead, I would like to talk about the relationship of all of us to the North Sentinel Islanders, and how much we are all like them—or at least potentially like them—at times.
Seeing connections between ourselves and this remote tribe isn’t easy, for many reasons. It’s far more comfortable for us, especially those in the West, to focus on the way this exotically pristine tribe was violated, or the way a missionary kid went as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter by this primitive, even barbaric tribe.
Okay, so maybe some of us have more complex responses, but there’s often a disturbing ‘othering’ that happens, which tends to result in us seeing this ‘untouched’ tribe in a simplistic, black-or-white way. Either they are innocent victims seeking to protect their simple existence, or they are violent barbarians hostile to the outside world.
My goal here is to help make the North Sentinel Island tribal dynamic—which we all practice from time to time—visible to us using stress research.
You see, we’re all—ALL—wired with stress responses when we feel threat. This isn’t actually something that “makes us human” either—stress responses are shared with animals, and one of my students recently told me that there’s fascinating research going on with stress in plants as well.
Humans, though, experience a stress response as a result of a significantly broader range of causes. We feel stressed when our identities are being threatened, or when someone questions the markers that frame our understanding of the way the world is. We feel stressed when we encounter those who are not “our kind of people”, especially when they seem like they may threaten our way of life.
So you see, we’re all not that removed from the impulses these remote islanders felt when John Allen Chau came into their midst. We’re wired to think and react the same way when we feel threatened.
Of course, some of us more than others are more likely to actually pick up and fire “arrows” to punish or eject outsiders. There are groups and societies that are more closed to others, quicker to ostracize people for thinking differently. As Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her famous Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, the more access we have to a variety of stories about the way the world works, the more likely we are to treat others justly. This is true of us in our best moments, but it doesn’t negate the fact that when we feel threatened by someone who seems unsafe, we retreat back into those pre-programmed single stories. Our biases. We go back to those we find safe, with our arrows poised and ready to protect us if necessary.
The thing is, many of the fears we have in those moments are real. There are real dangers out there. Stress impulses are many times incredibly valid.
If John Allen Chau came into the village, things would have changed. And no matter what you think about the missionary enterprise, there’s plenty of history that shows his inclusion would not have been an unmixed blessing.
And yet—and yet—there are fears they had that were likely ungrounded. Reaching for those arrows—choosing to take the fight impulse to its most extreme, fatal conclusion—was not their only choice in how to use the fight impulses that arose.
Here’s the thing: we are all the North Sentinel Islanders at times. I’m not trying to judge here whether their choice to isolate combined with fight was the right decision. What I’m saying is that none of us, no matter how “rational” or “open-minded” we seem, are above such impulses. And sometimes even the best of us are tempted in these directions.
We may use words as weapons rather than arrows. We may circle the wagons through tone-policing and insults and all sorts of subtle or unsubtle ways to distinguish the untrustworthiness of others so we can eject them from our midst, even if we don’t technically kill them.
But there is a North Sentinel Islander in all of us.
I try to hang out in quarters where we rely on evidence where possible. Where we look for multiple stories and try to embrace those who have been marginalized elsewhere. And still, in those areas, I have seen this impulse enacted. The reversion to the single story under stress.
It’s been happening more lately, too. That’s not because there is more danger afoot in those progressive spaces, though. It’s because the more actual threats there are from other sources, the easier it is to find danger and threat within our own group. It’s harder to find nuance and complexity and to leave room for growth.
Let us not grow weary of remembering that no matter how “advanced” we are—no matter how privileged or progressive or “mature” or woke or aware of injustice because of our own trauma or whatever other measure we use to set ourselves apart from the actions of the North Sentinel Islanders—we all share this capacity for basic stress responses.
These basic stress responses can be helpful. Or they can hurt. It’s how we use them that matters.
One thing that can be ultimately helpful for all of us, though? Let’s stop shaming each other and ourselves for having them. Should we think through carefully how to use them? Hold each other accountable for that? Absolutely. But let’s stop with the shaming.
D.S. Leiter uses a pastor’s kid background together with a PhD in Communication to unpack the issues surrounding conflict, assertiveness, and spirituality at FB.me/AssertiveSpirituality and assertivespirituality.com. For a limited time, if you sign up for the weekly email newsletter in the top bar at AssertiveSpirituality.com you can get the free PDF “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls,” which helps with conflict both online and off.