Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Life with the Other

In the past four weeks, I’ve most been with people who on the surface are quite different from me. Different mother tongue, different cultural upbringing, different religion. They eat some different foods, sing some different songs, play some different instruments. Many had different skin tones or different body types. And yet, we found a way to connect. In fact, connect more deeply than I often do with people who seem to be just like me.

It’s indisputable that we are hard-wired for sameness. Left alone in any social setting, boys will group together and girls will group together. The black kids will sit together in the cafeteria long after Jim Crow has been dismantled. Parents from the same elementary school who didn’t particularly hang out together will cluster at the new high school parent night. Sameness is our default setting that brings comfort and familiarity, a safe base from which to venture out.

But our development into adulthood invites us to venture out, from the toddler taking steps further and further away from the parent to the bold move to talk to a stranger at a party to tasting new foods, reading new books, studying new musical styles, traveling to a new place and daring to wander beyond Starbucks. The pull to explore the other is as central to our nature as our urge toward sameness, but requires a more conscious effort and demands an openness and curiosity that our upbringing either supports and encourages or shuts down and denies. 

The negative side of the comfort of sameness is our fear and distrust of the other, again, probably biologically-based from our survival instinct from our ancient predator-prey roots. Is this “other” dangerous to me? The brain begins with its fight/ flight/freeze instinctive response until the other has proven trustworthy. Of course, within our “tribe” there are layers of fear and distrust, some alpha male hierarchy that has its own layers of self and other, but the dynamic between two antelope is less threatening than antelope and lion. We may begin with that antelope-lion dynamic, but human beings have the capacity to move beyond the brain stem to the warmth of emotion and the ability to reason, we are made to move beyond our initial instincts. 

And yet so many don’t. We cling obsessively to outer sameness and are threatened beyond reason by anything different. Kids taunting and teasing and bullying all kinds of others—physically or mentally disabled, kids in different places on the gender spectrum— need to be educated into acceptance, tolerance, compassion and eventually, true friendship. Adults who feed that reptile brain with socially constructed assumptions of race, sexuality, religion, class, etc. and feed that initial distrust or fear and build a society around that (listen to any right-wing radio talk show for an example) are causing great damage to culture, the people they wrongly define and themselves. Anyone with three functioning human brain cells and a sliver of an open heart can see in stories like Green BookHidden FiguresThe Help  that they not only continue a legacy of purposeful harm and suffering to others, but they imprison themselves in a small world where they miss the possibility to be friends with whole populations, to learn from them and learn with them. They shut down the potential for “the other” to solve the problem the world needs solved. And so on.

I don’t get it. How poor my life would have been, would still be, without this constant encounter with a host of others who I talk with, walk with, share meals with, play music with, laugh with and listen to until all categories dissolved and all I see is my friend Kofi or Wayan or Mandana or Rodrigo or Wolfgang or Avon or ……well, the list is long. 

When it comes right down to it, we are all “others” to each other. Might as well enjoy it.

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