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Coping with What We’re Instinctively Afraid Of

Coping with What We’re Instinctively Afraid Of

My cat Heidi frequently stalks the squirrels, birds, voles that co-inhabit our back yard. So I wasn’t paying close attention the other day until I realized how intently she was positioning herself to pounce on something. This time – a full-grown adult racoon twice her size.

When I stood up to move between the racoon and my cat, the racoon calmly climbed the nearest tree and dropped over the fence into the neighbor’s yard.

Somewhat proud of my cat for protecting her territory, of course. But also concerned – should I be concerned about this “stranger” intruding in our yard? So many friends warned me, “Racoons can be vicious!”  I googled, yes, when they are sick or protecting their own young. I checked out the symptoms of a racoon ill with rabies or distemper.  Nothing matched.  I call animal control to make sure. No worries.  Should I do anything more?  “Ma’am, racoons have the right to live outdoors.”

Then I became curious about the assumptions of my own mind. Fear for the safety of my cat, or course. Even for me. Yet, could I manage that instant revving up of fear, slow down and assess the situation more calmly?

With a racoon, apparently yes. But other instinctual fears about other species, about our own species? It’s important to me to learn more about the Instinctive “othering” that our brains are hard-wired by evolution to do, and learn to train my brain to overcome that “othering” when I’m encountering my fellow human beings. [See Othering is Everywhere]

I have just checked out from the library Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do by Jennifer Eberhardt. I had just learned of her pioneering work at Stanford University, through the PBS series Hacking Your Mind, developing curriculum to teach police officers to assess their own reactions to citizens of various racial/ethnic groups, crime suspects or not.

Now on the top of my extended “sabbatical sort-of” book list. Knowing how crucial it is to learn what to do about what we don’t know we’re unconsciously doing. I’ll post an update at some point. (Hopefully no more incidents with the visiting racoon.)

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