Sometime in December—as this long, bitter, snow-buried winter descended upon Chicago—my wife was accosted by a squirrel.
She was walking out our front door when it ran up our sidewalk directly at her. She retreated inside and called us to the front door, where we looked out at the rodent through the pane of glass—the biggest, heaviest squirrel I’ve ever seen, sitting upright on our front porch, staring at us.
It was like Man Vs. Wild Goes to the Suburbs.
“Is it rabid?” my wife asked.
I scanned it for symptoms and didn’t see any. Incredulously, I responded, “I don’t think so. I think it just wants…food.”
I grabbed a scrap of bread, tossed it at his feet, and he proceeded to eat the entire thing right in front of us. And then he stared at us again, silently asking for more. We gave it to him and he disappeared around a tree.
That was three months ago. The ridiculous, record-setting winter continues, and several times a week, we look out our back door to find our big squirrel, perched on the deck railing, staring into our kitchen, waiting for food.
Recently, as I watched him eat and marveled at the size of him, it dawned on me: we’re not his only benefactors. In this long, hard winter, our squirrel is thriving because he’s learned one thing many people never learn: he exists in a benevolent world.
He’s learned to ask for good things until love responds.
When We Protect
Most parents have an intensely protective instinct. This is a good thing. It’s essential to our survival and it comes from a place of love. However, out of this protective instinct—in a futile effort to shelter children from all danger, struggle, and suffering—parents tend to teach their children exclusively about the dangers of the world. In subtle and not so subtle ways, parents send the message that people are basically corrupt and dangerous.
And that has consequences.
As we grow, our default mode becomes one of fear and protection—we create tribes, circle the wagons, and hope everyone who looks, thinks, and acts like us is safe and trustworthy. Ironically, in our effort to isolate and protect, we create an in-group versus out-group dynamic which dehumanizes “outsiders,” resulting in violence toward them. This violence then proves our original assumption: the world and its people are dangerous and not to be trusted.
We unintentionally create the reason for our fear.
Because we were never told the rest of the truth about people.
When We Open Up
My family recently traveled to New York and, I’ll be honest, I went with some misconceptions about New Yorkers. I’d been told they were hard and cold and bitter, kind of like the winter we’ve been having.
On our second day in the city, we left a restaurant and had walked about a block when a man came running at us from behind, waving his arms and screaming. The protective instinct within me arose. It felt like a crazy squirrel was running at my family.
But as the man came close, I saw the blue rectangle in his hand and my fear melted away in a river of gratitude. He was holding my wife’s credit card, which had dropped as she left the restaurant.
Suddenly, we were the squirrel being fed by one good and beautiful New Yorker.
As this lovely stranger walked away, I realized most of the people who had told me dire things about New Yorkers had never been to New York themselves. And I recalled a recent conversation in which someone told me, “Kelly, I’ve traveled all over the world, and the vast majority of people are good. The vast majority of people are kind and generous.”
When you get out into the world, meeting people from other groups and tribes, you begin to discover: while horrible things do happen in the world, there is also a benevolence alive within it that can be trusted and called upon and lived within.
I Have Been a Witness
People sometimes ask me, “As a therapist who bears witness to so many of the horrors of the world—who hears tragic stories of violence and evil every day—how can you have such confidence in the goodness of the world?”
My answer is, “I’ve been a witness to suffering, but I’ve also been a witness to its limits.”
I have been a witness to the vast, expansive, resilient, untamable power of hope.
I have been a witness to people who quit avoiding suffering and decide to carry it—venturing into the world full of courage, because they know they can bear the weight of it, because they know it won’t overwhelm them, because they know they can stand strong in the midst of it.
When we no longer feel compelled to avoid our suffering, we are set free to engage the world. No more groups. No more tribes. Just people, encountering each other with openness and grace, trusting in the presence of a benevolent love, and willing to suffer the consequences when love doesn’t show up.
I have been a witness to a people unleashed—free to live within the benevolence of the world, and free to become the benevolence of the world.
I have been a witness to this kind of people, and I want to shout the good news from every good and beautiful mountaintop in this broken, suffering, lovely world.
And I want to whisper it into the hearts of my children, so they can be cautious of danger, yet wide open to the potential for goodness, beauty, and grace in every moment, and in every person.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.