Why are some people so opposed to refugees coming into our country? Why do some see them as a threat and believe that it is acceptable to treat them as somehow less than human? These questions point to a major source of suffering in our world now. Something of a mythology has been built up around the perceived threat posed by frightened, desperate people entering our nation.
The deeper problem, however, is that we are clinging to a far too limited—and, frankly, obsolete—understanding of what a family is. It is this narrow vision of what makes a family that keeps us mired in fear of whomever we perceive as “different” and causes us to conflate “different” with “dangerous.”
We need to radically expand what we mean by the word family. There has been a strong tendency to think of family in terms of those who are our blood relatives as well as those to whom we are related through marriage. This has been our main criteria in determining who “we” are versus who “they” are.
Although a traditional extended family is more expansive and inclusive than the traditional nuclear family of biological parents and their children, it still leaves us with a perspective that invites us to see everyone else as non-family. In other words, as not “one of us.” As soon as we identify someone as “one of us” or “not one of us,” we quickly decide how we will treat that person based on which category we place them in. We human beings have a long history of social programming that predisposes us to give preferential treatment to those we see as “one of us” and to greet everyone else with a heightened sense of suspicion.
There are, of course, additional dimensions of the “one-of-us” family paradigm. We may identify with our professional colleagues as our “work family.” We can also attribute a family-like affiliation to various other kinds of groups that we have at some time been a part of: schools, sports teams, the military, political parties, clubs, fraternities, sororities, and similar organizations. These provide some added circles of inclusion, but, even so, there are always those “others” whom we will keep at a distance.
Although it may seem that we have reached an impasse in our understanding of the meaning of family, we have actually come to a closed door rather than a solid wall. This door can be opened, and we can step through it and enter into what lies beyond. This requires the proverbial leap of faith. It means acceptance of the idea that everyone and everything is our family: There is no human being anywhere on this planet that isn’t our brother or sister. There is no animal or plant that isn’t a relative. The land, the water, and the air are members of the same family to which we all belong.
This is actually quite realistic and practical when we remember that a central truth common to all families is that every one of them shares a common point of origin. They all start somewhere at a particular time. For human beings, this place is our little blue planet. We have been referring to her as “Mother Earth” for thousands of years. This is where we all began. We humans share 99.9 percent of the same DNA. We are much more alike than different from one another. If we allow our vision to become a bit more expansive, we see that our home planet and our local solar system all originated from the same recycled stardust. On a cosmic level, we all come from the same raw material.
So much changes when we realize that we are all part of the same family. We realize that “othering” a family member just doesn’t work. We cannot escape our relatedness. Competing with and defeating a family member just doesn’t feel right. Competition somehow becomes less interesting, while cooperation becomes very interesting, even lifesaving. We realize that generosity and compassion are sensible and natural. Giving something good to a family member becomes an act of giving to oneself. Receiving from a family member is a gift rendered back to the giver.
We have no need to be afraid of refugees. It is they who come to us afraid and needing our help. They are our brothers and sisters. We are all children of the ultimate mystery. We are all members of the same family.
Paul Nyklicek is a husband and a father. He works in Farmington as a psychotherapist and is a member of the Campaign Nonviolence Central CT Group.