Identifying With the One

Even the mountains agree—love one another.

In the summer of 2014 a German tourist went hiking with her dog leashed to her waist in the Austrian Alps. She was walking along a publicly maintained road leading through an alpine pasture when a small herd of mother cows and their calves charged the hiker’s dog from behind. Because the dog was fixed to her waist, and she did not hear the cows coming, the tourist ended up being trampled and suffered mortal injuries.

Earlier this year, the man who kept the cows was found liable for the woman’s death. The judge determined that the farmer knew that the herd had acted aggressively in the past and that the pasture saw a lot of traffic—the road is used by hikers, bikers and vehicles to access a popular mountain lodge nearby. The farmer had posted a sign warning passersby about the danger posed by the cows but had not taken any measures to separate the herd from the many other users in the area. Moreover, the dog had not acted aggressively, and the hiker’s responsibility for the accident was negligible. Finding that an inexpensive temporary electric fence would have prevented the accident, and that cowbells would have at least given the victim a chance to flee, the judge awarded the victim’s husband and son damages of about $200,000 up front with an additional $300,000 in annuities.

The public outrage in response to the judgment was immediate. The finding was seen—and not just by farmers and their lobbies—as an attack on farmers, livestock farming, personal responsibility, nature and even the Austrian way of life. Politicians pledged their support to the farmer, vowing that they would reform liability laws to preserve a way of life critical to the national identify from the Americanization of risk and responsibility. Armchair quarterbacks across the country bemoaned the lack of common sense—”Everyone knows that you can’t go hiking with dogs when cows are around!”—among tourists, who should know that nature (as if a pasture—a human intrusion into nature for economic gain—is something primordial) is a capricious and incalculable thing, and threw the baby out with the bathwater—”We have no choice but to fence off the Alps if that’s the way people are going to be!”

Public opinion was so lopsided—surprisingly not with the accident victim or her family, who surely suffered the most greatest and most tangible loss in this particular episode—that I began to wonder if the parties involved had come to represent something greater than themselves to the general public. There were no obvious winners or losers, heroes or villains here, after all—a family is torn apart but receives some financial compensation while a farmer must pay a significant sum but is likely insured. And yet solidarity was expressed first and foremost with the farmer. Why? For all the talk of the case’s relevance to Austrian identity, it’s not like Austria is an agrarian society—it’s a highly developed industrialized country and agricultural production accounts for less than 1.5 % of GDP —yet the loudest voices spoke as if it is a nation of farmers whose livelihoods are under siege by negligent tourists.

The case has been on my mind for several months now, but it wasn’t until I was reading reading an opinion column today in The New York Times that it finally clicked:

The C.A.P. researchers asked 2,000 registered voters what America’s foreign policy priorities should be. The top priorities were protecting against terrorist threats, protecting jobs for American workers and reducing illegal immigration. These are all negative aspirations: preventing bad things from hostile outsiders. (emphasis mine)

In the episode outlined above, it seems that the farmer represents stability—an idealized version of the local way of life combining tradition, nature, hard work and the production of something vital to sustaining life—and the natural inclination is to preserve that stability. The tourist, on the other hand, represents disruption—an outsider whose alleged disregard for nature and tradition upends the way things are done, imposing costs on and threatening the continued existence of an individual who supplies the country’s lifeblood.

When misfortune befalls both, it seems natural enough to identify with the party who represents the status quo—after all, he could be any of us! The outsider, by definition, cannot be. Her fate does not threaten society the same way that the farmer’s does, and so she is pushed to the margins to make room for the wagons to be circled around that which is dearer to us.

I wonder if a similar dynamic is at play in our responses to refugees, (il)legal immigrants, the poor, victims of abuse and other marginalized groups. It is no doubt difficult to identify with those whose experiences are outside our own, and if outsiders are not perceived as sharing majority values they could disrupt the status quo if welcomed into the fold, making their marginalization complete.

When we do identify with marginalized individuals and their circumstances, we can be generous with our support. When we cannot, we clamor for higher walls and more restrictive laws and express exasperation at people who “put themselves” into bad situations. If my finger to the wind is any indication, the former cases are much rarer than the latter. Moreover, I believe that more of us than would care to admit are potential members of marginalized groups.

For example, I suspect that even many who live paycheck to paycheck see themselves as embryonic millionaires rather than someone who is a medical emergency away from personal bankruptcy and homelessness. After all, those people surely made a series of irresponsible and foolish decisions that landed them in a pickle of their own making! I, on the other hand, am the model of thrift and industry! And what citizen of a developed country who has prospered for decades in a peaceful and stable environment—blessed by the projection of military, economic and cultural power and nurtured by the rule of law—can imagine uprooting their families and leaving behind their way of life, risking health and even life itself to traverse inhospitable lands in search of refuge?

Such collective failures of imagination undermine the solidarity required to help individuals and address intractable social problems. Apparently we believe that people—well, those we refuse to identify with, anyway—get what they have coming to them. We are so sure of ourselves and our place in the universe that it is hard to imagine that we too might suffer an undeserved fate. Too often we stack our programs, policies and laws in favor of the winners while training ourselves to avert our collective gaze from the misery of the marginalized.

This is nothing new, of course. The New Testament is, among other things, the record of the disruptive teachings of an outsider who urged us to betray our instincts and “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you”. Through the parable of the Good Samaritan we learn that our neighbors are not only the nice families in our HOA but also outsiders who show mercy to others.

In my experience, the world is not devoid of a general willingness to reach out and help others. In just the last week, for example, I experienced a couple of heartwarming episodes that reinforced my faith in humanity. In one case, a harried father with two babies in a stroller and a toddler in tow was struggling to make a train and had to surmount an escalator on the way to the platform. A boisterous group of teenagers noticed what was going on and came to the rescue, helping the man with his stroller and holding the toddler’s hand to help her on and off the escalator. A second episode involved my own daughter. We were on a hike and encountered a steep snow field. My daughter was terrified and didn’t want to climb down. I had everything for an afternoon of sport climbing in my pack, fortunately, and it was the work of a moment to set up a belay. Still, she couldn’t bear the thought of walking down herself. Walking down with her would have defeated the point of the belay, however, so we were at something of an impasse. Then a young man coming up the snow field offered to hold her hand back down while I belayed her. That worked, and she raved about that guy for two days.

Still, the more unlike us our neighbors are, the more difficult it is to identify with—much less love—them. I doubt many of us feel threatened by parents or children in a tight spot in a train station or on a mountain. But what about families camped along the border? What if your neighbors are a little obnoxious or simply don’t share your values? How do you respond to the plight of those who you believe threaten your very way of life?


  1. I suspect your final questions were perhaps rhetorical, but I’m going to answer it (from my perspective) anyway. You wrote:
    “Still, the more unlike us our neighbors are, the more difficult it is to identify with—much less love—them. I doubt many of us feel threatened by parents or children in a tight spot in a train station or on a mountain. But what about families camped along the border? What if your neighbors are a little obnoxious or simply don’t share your values? How do you respond to the plight of those who you believe threaten your very way of life?”

    It is difficult to embrace ‘strangers’, especially as one ages. Too many younger people have turned away from things like compassion and respect for their elders. I don’t expect adoration from strangers, but respect would be nice. Yes, I’m getting older. Yes I move slowly because I have physical problems. Yes, I might seem strange to them in turn.

    However, I try (and don’t always succeed) to live as Christ would have me live. And that includes NOT JUDGING people. It’s not my business ‘how’ they live, so long as they don’t steal from me or assault me. And they, in turn, should offer me the same consideration.

    I do not give money to ‘beggars’ by the roadside, but I do give to the local food banks. I’ve given out coupons for meals at fast food restaurants. I also give dog kibble in ziploc bags if a dog is with a homeless person.

    And as an soon to be elderly person, I face the specter of homelessness myself. Who knows what the future might hold? It doesn’t look particularly hopeful (to me) for folks who are ‘different’ for whatever reason.

    That farmer in your story was a stupid, thoughtless man apparently. I’m sort of glad the government there ‘got’ him. And again it’s none of my business and certainly not mine to judge the man. God will do that in time if the guy deserves it. He’ll judge me. My focus is to do the best I can with what I have and let my fellow man be.

  2. Deseret Defender says:

    “the more unlike us our neighbors are, the more difficult it is to identify with—much less love—them.”

    To what extent is it necessary to identify with someone in order to love them? Is our shared identity as children of God not enough?

  3. Another Roy says:

    Deseret Defender,
    I think that would be a marvelous place to start. I suppose the next question is, “What does it mean to love them?” Suppose the good Samaritan shouted, “I love you!” as he hurried on by. I do not have easy answers. I am as prone to get defensive of my privileges and possessions as the next guy. I am like the rich young man who was asked to sell all he owns and give it to the poor but instead went away sorrowing. I struggle with my natural man. In some ways I love my fellow children of God and in some ways I do not. I appreciate that this post has asked me to think about what it means to love my “neighbors” once again.

  4. I appreciate your post, and think it’s good practice for all of us to continually seek to do better in following the injunction to truly love all people, and yes, I agree, it’s harder to truly love and be compassionate towards people that we “other-ize.” We are all God’s children. Each of us needs to love and serve others more than we do.
    That being said, I don’t believe the desire to gain control of immigration at our borders can necessarily be blamed on a lack of identification with “marginalized individuals and their circumstances.” I have met, worked with, and admired a great number of immigrants It’s unfortunate that it is assumed that anyone who desires controlled borders is, by popular definition, labeled as racist and anti-immigrant. Perhaps a small percentage are. But in my heart (and I have to assume in many hearts of people who are in favor of border control), I want a system that is workable, sustainable, and charitable, I want a smart system, that identifies those who are dangerous and exploitative and keeps them out. I want a system that doesn’t overwhelm the capacity of all the local communities that become home to immigrants to provide the support and care that they need to be safe and successful in this new culture. We need to be loving and caring. We need to be wise.

  5. Jared Livesey says:

    Jesus didn’t leave us confused nor ignorant of what he meant when he said “Love ye your enemies.” He was specific and actionable in his instructions.

    1. Give to everyone who asks.
    2. Do alms – meaning give to the beggars who are holding up their signs / hats for contributions. (Compare these two with Benjamin’s “ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain.” “Suffer” in this context means “allow.”)
    3. Do not resist evil – that is, do not defend yourself when people do evil to you.
    4. If anyone smites you on one cheek, turn to them the other so that you may be struck again, and do not revile them.
    5. If anyone takes your outer clothing, do not forbid them from taking your underclothing.
    6. If anyone sues you at law, give them what they sue you for without a fight, and do not forbid them from taking more later also.
    7. Lend to your enemies, fully expecting nothing out of them again.
    8. Do not demand back what you lend or give out.
    8. Do not build up stores of money or substance in this world, but give your excess (that which you possess above your actual immediate needs) directly to the poor, which is how we store up for ourselves treasure in heaven. This means no Roth IRAs, no 401Ks, no 1 year supply of food, no 3 month supply of money, no rainy day funds, no retirement funds (on retirement funds specifically, and possessiveness [covetousness] generally, see Luke 12:13-21).
    9. Forgive all debts and transgressions you are owed.
    10. In sum, every last thing you wish others would do to you, do those very same things to others – this is the entire law, and the message of the holy prophets.

    If we love him, Jesus says, then do these things. Those who have these commandments and do them are those who love him, he says. Those who do not do these things do not love him, he says, and the word he spoke was not his, but God’s (John 14:15, 21, 23-24).

  6. Perma Banned says:

    If you believe in open borders for all countries, please support Libertarians

  7. Perma Banned Again says:

    If you support open borders, vote for Libertarians

  8. The question that prompted this post was “Why do people sympathise more with the plight of a man who is fined several hundred thousand dollars than a woman who lost her life?” No doubt there’s more to be said about this than I have covered in my post, but it’s striking to me how threats to material prosperity seem to stir us up more than threats to human life.

    The post isn’t really about the pros and cons of migration policies but where we draw the lines in our minds and why. My guess is that our sympathies lie with people who support or represent what we perceive as stability, which would include material prosperity.

    Deseret Defender asked “Is our shared identity as children of God not enough?” I would like to think so, but is that really how we think of each other, as first and foremost united by divine heritage? I struggle to believe that this is universally the case. At least speaking for myself it is not.

  9. Jared Livesey says:

    The reason people get stirred up (defensive) about material prosperity (called “mammon” in the scriptures) is because people are pretty darn sure that mammon can give them anything in this world – security, stability, healthcare, conveniences, food, rent, credentials, status, power, popularity, pleasure, freedom from want, freedom from dependence upon the good will of others – everything. An attack on mammon is, quite literally, an attack on the God of this world. Mammon indeed reigns from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and who dares to molest his rule or make his adherents afraid? Besides, his representatives are in this world successful and eminently respectable.

    On the other hand, Jesus is paid mere lip service because people are nowhere near as sure he actually exists as they are sure about the power of mammon. Besides, Jesus’s representatives are in this world undesirables, outcasts, and losers, just as he himself was.

    Where one’s treasure is – the stuff we get defensive about – there is one’s heart.

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