Our brains are set up to notice “otherness” in a simple, basic sense. It’s how we distinguish between things we cuddle and things that will eat us, things that will nourish us, and things that will poison us. Our ability to distinguish this from that is part of what’s kept us alive this long. It allows us to appreciate new and interesting things, to learn from and adapt to the novelty that comes our way. It’s kept existentialists like me busy for about a hundred years.
Just as humans have evolved, “otherness” has changed over the years. This new version has gotten us into heaps of trouble.
Recently, humans have been so “other” to each other that they find reasons to stop each other from breathing, to take children from their parents, to run people down with their trucks, to volley bombs across borders, to deny many the right to love each other, or to have control over their own bodies.
Of course, this amped up, extreme version of “other” isn’t new. It’s been making us sick for thousands of years. “Other” is behind all manner of atrocities. It comes in so many varieties, dressed in “isms”, sometimes raging and sometimes nearly silent. Open a history book, close your eyes, and randomly flip to any page. There’s a story of “other” there somewhere, of someone (or rather, a lot of someones) who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get past “other”. It’s a long, long way from the version of “other” that once allowed us to survive.
Perhaps it’s just because for the past year or so, we’ve been distanced in a very physical, tangible way that “otherness” feels closer to the surface lately. As we’re finally starting to get a handle on a virus that’s kept us apart, it’s becoming apparent just how detached we’ve been all along. There’s a lot of “I didn’t know it was so bad” and “I had no idea people were going through that.” Even in the most seemingly peaceful and prosperous parts of the world, people of colour do not feel safe going about daily activities, women are still paid less for equal work, worshipping in your chosen way might get you attacked, the elderly are neglected, the 2SLGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal access to healthcare, indigenous groups struggle with basic needs, those with disabilities are often unaccommodated…there’s more. So much more. And this is in the digital age, when the sum total of human knowledge is there, in our faces, all the time.
Yeah, it’s that bad, and yeah, a lot of people are going through it.
As I type all of this, I am so overwhelmed with “other”, with the weight of the past year, with awareness of my privilege, with anger and loss, with a nauseating lack of surprise at all that’s happening in the world, I don’t know where to put it all. But, as Henry Rollins once said, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” Dear readers, I am an optimist, and a fixer, and a hugger, and a humanist. I do what I do for a living because I’m a keen student of human experience, because, from the bottom of my heart, I want to know what it’s like to be all kinds of “us”. I promise to keep challenging myself and anyone else who’ll listen, to question assumptions and to think rationally about our relationships with fellow humans. I will keep learning more about the world outside my bubble. I will call “otherness” what it is, and not make excuses. I will refuse to be reduced to an “other”, and I will endeavour to catch and correct myself whenever I “other” someone else. I will screw up sometimes, and misunderstand, and speak out of turn on occasion, but I will try.
Here’s the thing about doing away with “other”: it doesn’t hurt. It’s work, for sure, probably work without an end, but it’s actually a relief. Being angry and fearful, living with the conviction that “others” exist only to make us miserable and to take things away from us…it’s exhausting. Once we face up to the idea that this extreme version of “other” isn’t a real thing, that it’s a jagged, hard shell we construct and maintain at tremendous cost to our well being, we can spend our time and energy doing something else. You know, like coexisting. I still get to be me, and you still get to be you, but we don’t dwell in a vacuum anymore, hidden from each other’s sight and each other’s understanding.
A number of years ago, I taught comparative religion classes to college students. It was only a 14 week class, with only 3 hours at a time to cover an entire faith, but we still got to take at least a small peek at the “why” behind beliefs and practices. Our classes were made up of a diverse range of learners, and more often than not, someone in the group belonged to the religion we were discussing, and added their own thoughts and experiences. Learners who elected to take those classes were genuinely curious, about all kinds of ways that faith is expressed, and about how their own fit into the mix. There were a lot of “aha” moments, and I like to think that in some small way, we chipped away at “otherness”. I’d do a whole lot to see more moments like these, outside of the classroom, to find space for these little sparks of understanding.
So, here’s a place to start. If you’re reading this, please turn to the person to your right and introduce yourself. Then the person to your left. Talk, listen, breathe, repeat. If you don’t understand something, ask politely for clarification. If you disagree, do it respectfully, with reason. If you don’t like each other, that’s okay too, just be in the same space as fellow human beings. With seven and a half billion versions of us out there, this should keep us busy for a while.