Eight-year-old Sean was so excited to see his Aunt Jen at his birthday party in 2011 that he jumped into her arms, crying, “Auntie Jen, Auntie Jen, I love you!” Both Sean and Jennifer Connell tumbled to the ground, and Jennifer ended up with a broken wrist. Jenifer was advised that the only way to recover her medical costs from her nephew’s parents’ homeowners insurance was to sue Sean for $127,000. Under Connecticut law she could only sue an individual.
On the witness stand last week, Connell, a human resources manager in Manhattan, said that even though she loves Sean and says he loves her, she thinks he should take responsibility for his actions. Her case was thrown out by a jury last Tuesday afternoon after thirty minutes of deliberations. Vilified in social media, Connell claimed that she was pressured to name Sean in the lawsuit, saying, “I adore this child. I would never want to hurt him. He would never want to hurt me.” Sean, of course, was acting out of instinct. Because of natural love for his aunt, he exuberantly approached her, and an accident happened.
Like all creatures, we humans have instincts. It doesn’t matter where we were born, what color our skin is, how much money we have or what we do for a living. Each one of us exhibits genetically hard-wired behaviors that enhance our ability to cope with our environment.
Our instincts go back to the time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors continually faced dangers of one kind or another. Consider snakes. When most human beings see a snake, they reflexively respond with fear because our ancestors lived alongside snakes, many of which were poisonous. In addition, tribal loyalties dictated fighting other small tribes that threatened them, which partly explains our human tendency to want to protect our families and even nations. These hard-wired innate behaviors enabled our ancestors to survive, but they can also become problematic when those behaviors are not adapted to today’s world.
Some of our instinctual reflexes are found in babies. The Palmar grasp reflex explains the tendency for babies to close their hand around our finger when we stroke their palm. The swimming reflex prompts babies to instinctively begin to paddle and kick when placed in water. And there is the rooting reflex where babies up to four months old will turn their head and attempt to breastfeed when they feel something stroking their cheek or mouth.
The greatest instinct of all, however, is love. Genesis 1:27 says that you and I are created in God’s image. It is in our DNA to love and be loved, to exist together in community and to nurture, encourage and protect one another from harm. Humans and animals will go to any length to keep their young safe, even giving up their own life, if necessary.
As I’ve been thinking about instinct, I’ve also been watching the migration of birds now that autumn is here. In Birmingham, Michigan, where I live, the approximate date for Henslow’s Sparrows to depart for the south is October 25. In neighboring Wayne County, the Northern Waterflush’s departure date was around September 26, and the Bay-Breasted Warbler is scheduled to take off around today, October 19 (birdnature.com).
Whether birds fly south or not depends on what kind of food they eat and whether it is available in the winter. Birds that survive on certain seeds or are able to search for spiders and insects under tree bark often stay. Whereas many birds such as robins fly south to warmer climates, other robins replace them by migrating to Michigan from the colder climates of Canada.
Ray Brown, of Massachusetts-based radio show, Talkin’ Birds, did a segment on National Public Radio’s October 10 Weekend Edition. According to Ray, some birds migrate relatively short distances. Others travel thousands of miles, at times alone. Ray referred to the famous Bar-tailed Godwit, E7, who apparently still holds the world record for a 2007 non-stop flight of more than eight days and 7,200 miles. Tracked by satellite, E7 did not stop to eat or drink on her journey from Alaska to New Zealand.
When asked, “How do they know where to go?” Brown responded, “It’s a great question, and certainly that’s still not completely understood. Among many birds, they seem to have an inherited instinct. We know this because they go without any accompaniment. They’ll travel to a place they’ve never been to before and know how to get there. You know, they’re following the patterns of stars. They’re following the courses of rivers. They’re following mountain ranges. They’re following the coastline.
“And maybe the most astounding thing is that they’re suggesting now that birds can actually, in some sense, see the Earth’s magnetic field. In other words, this actually is perceived through their eyes.”
And what about snowbirds? How do they migrate? Living in the north central part of the United States, we see many of our retirees migrate along with the birds. Is it instinct that leads snowbirds south in the winter? Are humans hard-wired for more light, warmth and community and less cold, snow, ice, shoveling, darkness and human interaction?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that afflicts many people in the winter, especially in colder climates where the days are shorter, it’s more difficult to get out, seasonal businesses are closed and we feel more isolated. Many of us also experience the same symptoms that hibernating animals do. In the winter we often sleep more and exercise less. We also tend to fuel up in order to get through cold weather by craving comfort foods like hot chocolate, chili, macaroni and cheese and tomato soup.
Some snowbirds are already preparing to leave, winter-proofing their home and packing clothing for warm weather but also planning to return for a brief time over Christmas to see the grandkids. As snowbirds gas up the car to head south, Ray Brown reminds us of the migration of birds, “These songbirds, there’s one called the Blackpoll Warbler, and it has another incredible migration route, flies all the way across Canada, then all the way down the Atlantic coast over the water to the Caribbean. And they figured out, you know, these birds, they fatten up before they go so they can have all this fuel. But they burn it so efficiently as a car would do, except somebody figured out if you could make a comparison between the Blackpoll Warbler and a car, the Blackpoll Warbler would be getting 720,000 miles per gallon.” Sorry, snowbirds.
No matter who we are or where we winter, one guiding instinct always remains. God created you and me for love and for each other. It’s in every fiber of our being. At our best, we humans reflect the unconditional love of a God who creates us with the freedom to choose. We can choose whether to hate or love, seek revenge or offer forgiveness, respond with judgment or grace, head south or stay up north.
Unfortunately, when we do not act in accord with the image of God that is in each one of us, we can damage others in ways that are difficult to repair. Babies who do not receive the nurturing they need from birth often struggle later in life to be loved and express love to others. Children who live in homes where there is constant fear rather than affirmation may be challenged to live whole and healthy lives as adults. Anyone whose instinct to love is squelched early on can fight an uphill battle.
- Sean, thank you for loving your aunt so much that you were filled with joy when she came to your party. Accidents do happen.
- Jennifer, thank you for loving Sean, even midst of the lawsuit. I hope your wrist is healed.
- Thank you, God, for creating us with instincts that cause us to head south when we need to, whether we are birds or humans.
- Thank you for infants who nurse at the safety of their mother’s breast, drinking in unconditional love.
- Thank you for our ability to respond to our higher instincts to show grace rather than hate or exact revenge.
- Thank you that whereas E-7 could go at it alone, you also created us to journey together and be in community. Thank you, God, for creating us for each other.