Bear In Mind

There are approximately 750,000 black bears in North America. They have killed 67 people since 1900. This fact became fairly important to me Wednesday when I came face to face with a black bear on a trail in Grand Teton National Park. I was on my annual trip with the Whistlepigs, a CEO peer group led by Dr. Nathan Mellor and we were hiking around Phelps Lake on the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. The area we were in is known for bear activity, so we had familiarized ourselves with the actions to take should we encounter a black bear: stay together and keep making noise, back away in the direction you came from, and keep your eyes on the bear (never turn and run). If attacked, you should fight back (unlike grizzly attacks, where you get to your stomach, protect the back of your neck and hope you survive.)

So, when we turned a corner of the trail and came face-to-face with a black bear, we did what we had been told to do. We stayed in a group and yelled at the bear as we backed away. The bear kept coming. We continued backing up (and managed to take pictures and video) as the cohesiveness of the group started to diminish. The bear kept coming. Because of the difficulty in walking backwards over an uneven and rocky trail, the bear would momentarily gain on us, at one point getting within 10 yards, but we just kept backing up. The bear kept coming. Finally, we came to the intermediate trailhead where a park ranger happened to be. She told us to move off the trail and the bear would pass. We did and it did, within 20 feet of us or so.

Then the park ranger told us a little about the bear. She is 5 years old and hasn’t yet mated, but probably will this season. She ranges along a loose oval that includes the trail we were on and another area within the preserve where she likes to feed on the hawthorns. The trail we were on is how she moves from one area to the next and she is reluctant to leave it. It is just easier to walk the trail. Apparently, she is unafraid of humans and mostly disinterested. She has never shown signs of aggression. So, the ranger said, if we had stepped off the trail, she would have walked right by us.

This experience made me think about how we respond to things we are unfamiliar with, including people. When we started out that morning, the only knowledge I had about black bears was the general (average) representation. All black bears lumped into a single representative bear. Confronted with the bear, I had to quickly decide how to respond. Without specific information about that particular bear, I had no real choice but to treat that bear as an “average” bear. Turns out, she wasn’t average, and I missed an opportunity to experience an even closer encounter.

How often do I do the same thing with people?  When I first approach (or am approached) by another person I tend to view them through an “average” lens. This lens is like a camera lens in that it allows me to shift my focus and zoom in or out, but it is also “protected” by filters that are placed in front of it by a myriad of things. The filters include the way I was raised, things that happened to me, things that other people I admire or care about have said, and things I have read or seen. All these things pre-set my view and are triggered by general identifiers: race, age, gender, appearance, location—just to name a few. While there may be certain circumstances where applying general or “average” filters to people is prudent (it is certainly best where bears are concerned), at best I am artificially limiting my ability to connect with the other person. At worst, I am painting the other person into a corner without them even knowing it. They are starting from a position where I have already made judgments about them and believe certain things about them. And they are probably doing the same thing to me.

Given that I do this, it is a bit miraculous that I can make friends at all. It is not difficult to understand why most of my friends look a lot like me. When I see someone that looks and acts and sounds like I do, I am less likely to be afraid and more likely to be open. However, no one is the average of their group, so my openness could very easily be misplaced. On the trail, I was afraid of the bear, but not of any of the people or dogs I saw. Black bears kill less than 1 person per year on average. People on the other hand are dangerous. One out of each 16,000 people commits murder each year across North America. We should be afraid of dogs too. Over 500 deaths have resulted from dog attacks in North America in the last 30 years alone.

Turns out I am more likely to be killed by a person or a dog than by a black bear. While I am not suggesting that you go out and try to befriend a bear, I am saying that fear is the result of not having specific information about an individual. This information can easily be obtained if I simply choose to be open instead of acting on the lenses I have gathered up during my life. Additionally, once I find that an individual is unique and not the “average” that I have been fearful of, that lens loses some of its power. The park rangers in Grand Teton National Park know all the bears. They each have particular habits and personalities and the rangers know how to interact with them on an individual basis. The same can be true for me (though not necessarily with bears.) With enough interactions I may remove those lenses completely and not be afraid of the differences at all. This is my goal.

Each of us is intrinsically and equally valuable. I want to be able to act in accordance with that value, which requires that I approach each person as an individual, not as the “average” of some group. My hope is not that I will be “blind” to the differences we each have, as those are what make us unique and give our community diversity. My hope is that the differences will not separate us. Each of us is the outsider to someone else. Let’s be a community that is open to getting to know others rather than judging others. And bear in mind, that is The Kimray Way.