Thursday, January 8, 2009

War and the Parental Instinct to Protect

Posted by Ellen W. Horowitz

A moving and important article by Dr. Stuart Chesner

War and the Parental Instinct to Protect

Stuart Chesner, Ph.D

Clinical Psychologist

Founder and Headmaster Bnei Chayil High School-Jerusalem

Yesterday I buried my first student. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain felt by his parents. I also cannot imagine the pain felt by Rabbi Akiva, who buried twenty three thousand students, but as an educator and psychologist, I have been given a searing insight into the tragedy of war.

The most basic instinct possessed by humans, primates and other creatures, is protection of our children. No one with a basic sense of mental health needs to learn this. We are biologically and evolutionarily wired to protect our offspring, even at the risk of sacrificing our own lives. Hence, we see, in the regular course of parenting, parents give more to their children than to anyone. Parents sacrifice many of their own needs of basic self gratification to make sure their kids are protected from personal dangers, environmental dangers, social dangers and spiritual dangers. We go to heroic extremes in the course of daily living in order to protect and preserve those who we are entrusted to bring into the world.

War is so psychologically stressful for parents because it presents a situation in which we totally reverse and contradict the basic protection instinct of parents. Instead of us protecting our children, we send our children to protect us while we remain relatively safe in our homes. The natural parental instinct to protect is totally frustrated. The same child who we remember yesterday as having changed his diapers, is today facing people who want him dead. Our natural instinct is to protect and to do anything possible to keep our children out of danger.

Unfortunately, the Hamas are totally aware of our protective instinct. They manipulate it cruelly by using Gilad Shalit as a symbol of psychological warfare, in order to attack our parental desire to protect. They threaten to kidnap more soldiers, but not to treat them according to the international laws regarding prisoners of war, but as hostages, playing on our deeply rooted instinct to protect our children at all costs.

The result is that thousands of Israeli parents are tied in a psychological noose. Our deeply rooted instinct to protect our sons and daughters is confronted with an external reality, wherein our families, friends and neighbors are put in continuous danger of life and limb through regular rocket bombardment of civilian populations.

How are we to psychologically survive?

As humans, our evolutionary development is not limited to the individual parental protective instinct. We have also developed an evolutionary based collective protective instinct. The collective protective instinct, according to British psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, is in fact biologically and evolutionary in its basis, as is the individual protective instinct. Over the years, those members of the species who were more connected to the group had greater chances of survival and in fact were able to cope better with the dangers presented by enemies. When we cultivate the collective instinct for collective protection, we in fact, geometrically increase the likelihood that any individual in the group is also protected.

The awareness of the power of the collective protective instinct happened to be displayed dramatically in our formation as a nation. Jacob has lost his beloved son Joseph. The seemingly capricious and ruthless ruler of Egypt demands that Benjamin now also be brought down to Egypt. The thought of losing both children of Rachel is too overwhelming for Jacob. He refuses to consider it, until Judah emerges with the concept that our individual survival depends upon our collective protection. He convinces Jacob by unequivocally stating, "I will personally guarantee him. Of my own hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him back to you and stand him before you, then I will have sinned to you for all time.” It is poignant to note that Judah's statement is predicated on the fact that if he does not assume collective responsibility, each individual will die. "Send the lad with me, so we will live and not die. We as well as you , as well as you and your children."

Our enemies have always tried to dull our sense of the collective protective instinct. In times of war, this becomes easy pickings, because the collective protective instinct is in direct competition with the parental protective instinct. It is the emergence and the strengthening of our collective protective instinct that provides a chance for survival and victory in a time of war.

As my student, Nitai Stern a”h, was buried into the sacred earth of Jerusalem, his father and mother sang, "May this be an hour of mercy and acceptance before God." There was tremendous grief and tremendous pain. But beyond the trauma, we saw the strength of collective protection, of collective mission and of collective destiny. Psychological coping requires that we internalize this collective sense of destiny and purpose, even in the face of incredible personal sacrifice.


Dr. Stuart Chesner is an internationally known clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of children with learning disabilities and behavioral problems. He is the founder and headmaster of Yeshivat Bney Chayil in Jerusalem. The school is currently running a therapeutic retreat program for the weakest segments of the Southern population that are being bombarded by rockets, with all participants selected by the social welfare agencies in these regions. For volunteer opportunities in these critical programs and donations, please email Donations are tax deductable

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