Pit of Despair

They called it the Pit of Despair.

It housed individual baby rhesus monkeys for 3-12 months in total isolation.  It was “little more than a stainless steel trough,” research assistant Stephen Suomi recalled, “with sides that sloped to a rounded bottom.”  (From Thought to Therapy Article)

Post-WWII psychologist, Harry Harlow, designed the chamber to study what would happen to a social being if left completely alone for extended periods of time.  Harlow wrote in a 1966 report on his initial isolation chambers, “Human hands were introduced through portholes in the feeding box during the first 28 days of life.” Otherwise, “the monkey [had] no contact with any animal, human, or subhuman.” (1966 Report)

After the isolates—as he called them—were released and paired in playrooms with other monkeys for observation, “they usually [went] into a state of emotional shock.” (1965 Article)  One monkey even died after five days from emotional anorexia.  Harlow and his team scientifically measured and charted their behaviors: repetitive movements of panic, detachment into corners of the room, and hostility towards others and towards their own bodies.  Simply put, “The isolates were fearful and physically aggressive.” (1966 Report)

As you can imagine, the monkeys’ lives were completely obliterated.  And though each of them responded differently throughout the decades of testing—not a single one was reported unaffected.  It doesn’t take cages and monkeys, or even a background in psychology, to validate the obvious: isolation begets fear.  Fear begets aggression.

What would happen if Harlow had put a human being in the same scenario?  I tremble at the thought.  I submit the outcome would be far worse.  Your thoughts may have gone there already, but there are harrowing events in human history that well endorse Harlow’s hypothesis.  But that’s history.  We would never do such a thing again.

Because, you see, we’ve come a long way in regards to human rights; the West has fought perhaps more so in the last century than ever—both globally and at home—for freedoms that all human beings are inherently entitled to: freedom of opinion; from slavery or inhumane treatment; the right to work and education.  Out of that, the “self-made" man was born and raised, and he holds the limitless liberty to overcome obstacles and make our lives whatever we dare dream up—regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic standing.  Individualism has become our morning cup.  Never has there been a time in history like it, nor is there a comparable place on earth.


Yet such limitless liberty is bound today by modern war.  A war that is no longer kept within a distant country’s borders, or even a single continent.  It leaps—weekly—across oceans to assault unassuming tourist towns or a quaint café of couples and friends enjoying Friday cocktails after a long week of work.

Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images News / Getty Images
Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images News / Getty Images

We are spent—absolutely spent—all of us; because it’s clear nobody is safe anymore.  And that’s no way to live; we can’t walk around afraid all the time!  So we sit at our dinner tables discussing who to vote-in as a sufficient safety measure, how to weed out the bad with thorough screening and astute attention to suspicious activity, and we grapple over which is the wiser choice: arm the self, or disarm the assailant. 

Until we get this thing sorted out, it’s best to stay home, stay private, and watch our backs from the safety of nightly news.  The enemy can’t get us there.  And though we’d vouch for helping people in need in the Middle East, Africa, or even those that make it to our own neighborhoods, we simply cannot run such a risk with strangers.  Discerning the good folks from the bad is a challenge, so it's smart to be safe rather than sorry.

Photo by   Evert F. Baumgardner , c. 1958

Photo by Evert F. Baumgardner, c. 1958

But it doesn’t end there; I’ll just come out and say it. 

When refugees show up in my hometown, property values plummet, crime rate rises, and populations shift.  It’s a fact.  And that’s terrifying.  And those that need help on the other side of the world are more or less the daily segment following the weather report; we have to forget them if we plan to get to work on time. It can be very hard to know exactly what is our responsibility, and what is best left to others. Or perhaps, if we’re honest, it’s easier to let them remain a mystery; because, it’s true, we all have enough problems of our own.  And then there’s the fact that our resources, space, availability, and stamina are limited—if we help one, how many are to follow?  Who’s to say we won’t get mowed over—taken advantage of?  It’s not that we don’t care; we just hardly know how, and we’re afraid we can’t.

Then, of course, at the personal level, befriending someone so totally unlike us is tiring.  Not only is it a clash of customs and cuisine, but they might also be sick or dirty or difficult to communicate with.  They don’t adapt well to our way of doing things—and I happen to really like the way we do things!  And then there’s the objectionable vulnerability of self-disclosure.  Our quirks and foibles left hidden at home keep life smooth and standing favorable.

So lock the doors!  Latch the windows!  Bolster the walls we’ve built...because we don’t want to endanger those we love or complicate our already complicated lives—that’s human.  And there is absolutely nothing sinful about being human.  So each week we hear about another attack somewhere in the world, we add one more layer of bricks atop our already towering walls.  Naturally!

Unknowingly, amid our well-meaning intentions, our homes become cages.  Maybe our nations become cages, too?  The very thing—surely—we would never do again in human history, we are doing to ourselves: we isolate.  The gift of individualism has turned seductress.  My God, so thin is the line between mindful self protection and isolation that surely a sly little lie crouches beneath it looking for someone to devour.   

Photo by  IDuke , November 2005

Photo by IDuke, November 2005

Yes, I’m with you—it makes as much sense to stay far from potential danger as it does not to stick your fork in a toaster.  But let’s be honest, has it done us any good?  Are we any less afraid?  And what has keeping the “other” invisible really done to us?  Our paralysis should not be surprising.  We don’t need cages and monkeys to validate the obvious: isolation begets fear.  Fear begets aggression.

Moreover, is it so far-fetched to assume that if we are walled in, then someone else is walled out—equally as isolated and afraid as we?  Maybe it’s superfluous to then go so far as to call it a "pit of despair"; but should even a slight resemblance be there, how can we stroll by unmoved?  Could it be that if we want to make the world a better place and mitigate fear, we’re going to have to move towards one another—for our own sake and theirs?  We’re going to have to do the work of crawling out of our cages and reaching in towards the “other” crouched within their own cage.  We’re going to have to do that which seems counter and that which is—indeed—costly; for, if isolation begets fear, could connection beget the opposite? 

No, I don’t mean we throw our hands in the air and dismiss a war, the need for wise policymaking, or precaution in shady situations.  I’d also like to keep my family safe.  I don’t mean we imprudently drain all our resources and plow through our personal boundaries at the expense of family, health, and regular rest.  Nor do I mean if we do this, then life will be blissfully lighter, a whole lot safer, and successfully problem free.  My goodness, quite the opposite is true.    

What I mean is, maybe to start, we yield to the possibility that we cannot understand fully what we only know in part.  Once we get there, maybe we’ll be willing to explore this option: that to embrace the people and the parts of the world that leave us afraid is not only an antidote to our fears; but, the kicker, they are a gift that far surpasses the cost. 

If that’s true, everything changes.  We become willing—maybe even eager—to bend, to give, and meet in the middle.  Discomfort, risk, and even loss are not easy, but they do become subordinate.  Full disclosure: naturally, I almost always push away from this reality in disbelief—and that is true in all of my relationships, not just in those relationships with people culturally different from me. Nonetheless, I’m sure the more we choose to do it, the sweeter the gift is found to be.  After all, is that not how Christ, who embraced the ultimate “other”—wayward humanity—exemplified what it is to truly live by truly loving: gaining us in His loss?  He explained it like a grain of wheat.  It will not and cannot bear bushels—the gift of life—in any way but through its dying, its burial beneath the soil.

So for such a gift to gain, each of us must sort out how to prudently step towards and lose ourselves for the people and parts of the world that we fear.

At home, this means making the invisible visible, engaging in a way that leads to first-person conclusions about individuals.  Your friendship and advocacy challenges the public perception, giving dignity to the overlooked.  This means driving their kids to school registration and filling out the paperwork.  It’s responsibly putting our heads and resources together to help a family find a place to sleep, knowing full well what it might do to the value of our properties.  It’s becoming available to sit on the floor and drink countless pots of chai till a wounded soul is completely emptied and heard, never mind the awkwardness or that you might be taken advantage of the first go-round.  It’s befriending their teenage son who just left a war zone, who, like you, will figure out how to leave his mark on the world—let’s not leave this brother alone in that. 

All of this, indeed, is a sacrifice; it’s time consuming and hard.  But that’s the sort of stuff I mean. That’s the sort of cost that the gift far outweighs.  That’s the sort of connection that begets the opposite of fear—when the unknown becomes known.  I’m confident you’ll find yourself loving—and really living—in a way that you’ve never known before. 

Now, on a global scale, one could argue that since most of the displaced of the world will never settle outside their own hemisphere, engagement is impossible, so these thoughts are irrelevant. Even my friend Tim Buxton explained to me during my time in Iraqi Kurdistan that the solution is not to uproot thousands of people and move them to the West.  He certainly wishes them safety; but the truth is, these people don’t want to leave home any more than you would.  All of us then, as Tim appealed, are to help them where they are.

And that’s exactly what Tim, Billy Ray, and their families are doing through The Refuge Initiative of World Orphans in Soran, Iraq—one of the most marginalized and neglected regions of the world. 

Billy, Dawn, and their three sons: Jonathan, Andrew, and Peter.

Billy, Dawn, and their three sons: Jonathan, Andrew, and Peter.

Tim, Sarah, and their three kids: Elliana, Charlie, and Lilly.

Tim, Sarah, and their three kids: Elliana, Charlie, and Lilly.

They have built five small self-sustained and self-governed camps for extended families of Shabak and Yazidi people who fled ISIS two years back.  The camps provide a place to call home, along with wholistic care, trauma counseling, and spiritual support.  They are working with the local government and businesses to create pathways back to independence with vocational training and job creation.  Currently, they’re building The Refuge School for 600 children to continue their education during displacement.


Engaging in the efforts of The Refuge Initiative is a concrete way to help the displaced of the world where they are, sensibly move our nation towards those that are not like us, and begin to mitigate both our fears and theirs.

There are innumerable ways to do so.
Particularly with the Refuge Initiative, funding is a given.  Links to donate are below.  You can also get creative.  You can sell tickets to a backyard screening of Better Friends than Mountains.  The documentary tells the tragic history of Kurdistan, the largest stateless people in the world.  Education is important in shaping our perception of a region, as it moves us to empathy, then to mercy, and then to helping meet the needs of the impoverished and overlooked.  Donate the proceeds of your screening to The Refuge Initiative.

It’s equally as important that we engage in the work of prayer.  Not only does it change what is happening in places geographically distant from us, but also changes what is happening inside our own hearts.  It causes us to care about what God cares about, and absolutely mitigates fear. 

Additionally, we can capitalize on mass communication.  Spread the word about The Refuge Initiative, either by sharing with others that you know can lend a hand, or by sharing links, videos, and stories on social media.  Again, your advocacy challenges the public perception and dignifies the overlooked.

Lastly, If you’re interested in visiting Soran with Hear the Cry, you can contact info@hearthecry.org

How to Donate to The Refuge Initiative:

Help Build The Refuge School for 600 refugee and IDP children.
$10 buys a brick for the school building.

Choose to sponsor a single refugee from one of the five camps by donating $30 or $60 monthly, or sponsor an entire family.

Stateside Involvement Near You:

• World Relief: Stateside Offices
• World Orphans: Local Involvement 
• Portland, Oregon area: Refugee Care Collective
• International Rescue Committee