Accompaniment: An Ethic Beyond Accidental Fences

Turkeys provide us with an ethical antidote to humanity’s conflict and violence.

Posted Jun 03, 2017

Jeff Borchers, used with permission
Source: Jeff Borchers, used with permission

There is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir.—William James

It is fall. The land is singing its last stanza before winter’s quiet settles in: mourning green, burnt orange, flaxen yellow. Traversing these bands of color are five male Wild Turkeys. It is an odd procession. Usually, at this time of year, males are in full display—snoods unfurled, tails extended. Instead, the autumnal splendor of these five is hidden under umber wings.

A minute of study reveals that one Turkey is limping. His comrades flank him, two to the right and two to the left. The uninjured match their steps in pace with their disabled comrade. The band of brothers slowly make their way across the field. Eventually, the Turkeys reach the forest edge where they will seek shelter for the night.

Avian injuries are not uncommon. A searing shotgun pellet or graze of a car barreling down a country road often results in a battered wing or broken leg. Both are almost always lethal. Turkeys travel and forage by foot and roost in trees at night. To lose one of these vital means of motion puts a Turkey at grave risk. Subsequently, the sight of an injured bird is not unusual, but what does cause remark is that the lame Turkey has not been abandoned. Forsaking the important tasks of wooing a prospective mate and finding food, the wounded Turkey’s erstwhile rivals have chosen to walk at his side. They have put companionship before individualized interests.

Jeff Borchers, used with permission
Source: Jeff Borchers, used with permission

Psychologist Mary Watkins would describe this avian gesture as “accompaniment.”[1, 2] It relates to the Spanish compañero, “friend,” and its Latin root ad cum panis, “to break bread.” In everyday speak, accompaniment simply conveys the notion of one person being in the presence of or journeying with another. But in the 1970’s, Latin American liberation theologians extended the concept of acompañamiento to the sociopolitical domain. Accompaniment developed as an antidote to the reigning paradigm of psychological, social, and economic disparities separating the poor from the rich. By understanding the link between poverty and institutionalized violence, social workers and psychologists such as Ignatio Martín-Baró sought to replace El Salvador’s polarizing culture of violent domination with one of compassionate inclusion.[3]

On the surface, the concept of accompaniment does not appear different from other efforts to eradicate inequalities whether they derive from racism, sexism, or speciesism. Accompaniment, however, digs deeper into the causal substrate of suffering to the very foundation of how we perceive ourselves. Accompaniment workers see the segregation of “I” from “you” and “us” from “them” as artificial, an accidental fence erected by the Cartesian worldview. As quantum physicists and anthropologists have demonstrated, the separatist view is neither consistent with science nor the majority of the human record. Ninety-nine percent of our genus's ancestral sense of self and other did not lead to the mass genocides that distinguish modern humans.[4] These societies were, instead, characterized by an ethic of accompaniment, what moral neuropsychologist Darcia Narvaez refers to as companionship.[5]

Jeff Borchers, used with permission
Source: Jeff Borchers, used with permission

At the foundation of accompaniment is a shared sense of self, an unbreakable relational “I-Thou” bond. Effect (imposed mental and economic poverty) is inextricably linked to cause (sequestration of mental and economic resources). Similar to the separation between those who are sent to war and those who do the sending, a culturally-accepted gated divide maintains the gap between dominated and dominators. When aid is offered, it usually is delivered via the safety of dissociation. As liberation theologian Roberto Goizueta writes:

As a society, we are happy to help and serve the poor, as long as we don't have to walk with them where they walk, that is, as long as we can minister to them from our safe enclosures. The poor can then remain passive objects of our actions, rather than friends, compañeros and compañeras with whom we interact. As long as we can be sure that we will not have to live with them, and thus have interpersonal relationships with them…we will try to help 'the poor'—but, again, only from a controllable, geographical distance.[6]

A change in resources has occurred, but the generative mechanism of psychological and physical disparity remains intact. Only when, as in the case of the Turkeys, we literally plant our feet alongside another who is need and hold nothing back that can help ease his or her suffering, will the cycle of violence be broken.

A glance around the wildlife kingdom shows that the procession of the five Turkeys is not uncommon. Wildlife, even the Puma, White Shark, and other carnivores purported to be asocial serial killers, are exemplars of accompaniment’s ancient prosocial ethics.[7] The accompaniment by the four male Turkeys was not extraordinary in the animal world. But they offer our species a powerful, alternative ethical model that reverses the acceleration of egoism. It is called love.


[1] Watkins, M. 2012. Accompaniment: Psychosocial, Environmental, Trans-Species, Earth. Plenary panel for Psychologists for Social Responsibility in Washington, DC, July, 13.

[2] Watkins, M. 2015. Psychosocial accompaniment. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3(1), 324-341.

[3] Martín-Baró, I. 1994. Writings for a liberation psychology. Harvard University Press.

[4] Narvaez, D. 2013. The 99 Percent—Development and Socialization Within an Evolutionary, in Fry, Douglas P., ed. War, peace, and human nature: the convergence of evolutionary and cultural views. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[5] Narvaez, D. 2014. Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom. New York: WW Norton.

[6] Goizueta, R. J. (1995). Caminemos con Jesus: Toward a Hispanic/Latino theology of accompaniment. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.

[7] Bradshaw, G. A. 2017. Carnivore Minds: Who These Fearsome Animals Really Are. Yale University Press.