Who do you include as "us" and exclude as "them"?
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I first met Mr. Scoots in 2019 while I was moving into my new apartment. The timid orange cat was given his name by the other tenants in the building, because of his habit of scooting away every time anyone comes a little too close to him. And true to his name, every time I came by to drop off another load into the new place, he’d scoot away to hide in the barn behind the building.
As a stray cat, Mr. Scoots has been great to have around the property and he’s become like a mascot for our building—a mascot that we can only admire from afar. That is until one day this past winter.
It was the first big snowfall of the season and the coldest day we’d had all year. I had just stepped out of the building and was walking through the parking lot to my car when Mr. Scoots saw me coming and started scooting away, but all of a sudden stopped short, starred up at me, and started meowing.
This was a big deal because Mr. Scoots never does this. It was completely out of character. He just stood there meowing at me, the cutest and meekest meows. By this time I had lived there for a year and a half and yet this was the most significant interaction we had ever had. Considering the weather, his meows could only be interpreted one way: he was pleading for help.
I tried to welcome him into my apartment but, being Mr. Scoots, that was an unacceptable offer, so I did the next best thing I could and have been making sure he has fresh food and water every day since.
I love Mr. Scoots, as much as a person can love a stray cat who runs away from affection, and I’ve become quite protective of my little buddy. So protective that when a new cat wandered into our neighborhood one day and starting bullying Mr. Scoots for his food, I became quite upset. Who did this cat think he was walking in here and being mean to my little buddy?
This new cat was grey and scrawny, yet bolder than Scoots. When I’d leave food for my buddy, Grey Kitty would immediately jump in and Scoots would scoot away, fearful of the newcomer. Trying to solve the problem, I took a page from Zig Ziglar’s book and figured that perhaps if I could give Grey Kitty what he wanted (food) then I could get what I wanted (to take care of Mr. Scoots).
The strategy seemed to work, at least at first. I’d leave food for Grey Kitty, far away from Scoots, and then give Scoots his food from a safe distance. But Grey Kitty was so quick to eat his food that he would just scarf it down and then mosey on over to Scoots and steal his food. I had to physically stand between the two cats to try and give Scoots a safe space to receive his sustenance, but Grey Kitty was persistent and Scoots was becoming overwhelmed and scooted away to hide.
When this happened, something scary happened inside of me. A “mother bear” instinct took over and my first impulse was to find a rock and throw it at Grey Kitty—to let him know that he wasn’t welcome here! But as quickly as that instinct overthrew my reasoning and compassion—before I could even find a rock—a feeling of shame took over and stopped me in my tracks.
What was I thinking?! I’m not the kind of person that throws rocks at cats! Where did this violent instinct come from? What happened to my positivity, compassion, and kindness?
I stood frozen in silence—like a stumped chess player seeing all the possibilities (and their consequences) and preferring not to move.
I looked at Grey Kitty with new eyes, and with these new eyes I saw through the disguise. Grey Kitty was really Mr. Scoots, doing his best to stay alive and get through this life. And then I looked deeper and further saw that Mr. Scoots was really me, and I too was simply doing my best to stay alive and make it through this life. And I don’t want rocks thrown at me.
A Little Help from Our Friends
Joe Cocker tells us that we get by with a little help from our friends, and this is a worthy reminder that we would do well to be mindful of who we include as friends, and who we exclude as outsiders.
In the book Survival of the Friendliest, the researchers Brian Hale and Vanessa Woods reveal that “just as a mother bear is most dangerous around her cubs, we are at our most dangerous when someone we love is threatened by an outsider,” demoting them to “subhuman, fair game for our worst instincts” (Hare & Woods, 2020).
It is our very capacity of compassion for those we love that can also drive us to seek injury for those who threaten the ones we love.
Who Do We Include As "Us"?
As I stood there looking at Grey Kitty with these new eyes, I wondered what if I had met Grey Kitty before meeting Mr. Scoots? What if Grey Kitty was included as one of “us” rather than excluded as an outside? Would a mother bear be quick to injure one of her own cubs? Or would the mother bear instead seek a more compassionate intervention?
In the days that followed this experience, I treated Grey Kitty as one of us, ensuring his needs were also met—the only way I knew how to demonstrate an apology towards a cat for the anger that had stewed in my heart.
This experience became an important lesson, revealing that when we increase who we include as ‘us’ and decrease who we exclude as ‘them,’ we empower understanding, unity and relationships, all prerequisites to being a true ally with our fellow world travelers.
How might you expand your definition of “us” and diminish your definition of “others” to empower high-value relationships?
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Jonas Cain is an educator, facilitator, and coach, working to engage, empower, and encourage leaders and the people they serve to experience joy.