Monday, June 27, 2011

How do we see the "other"?

The "other"...

It is truly amazing how the concept of the "other" defines the way we operate in society. It shapes our government, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our financial dealings, the food we buy, the movies we watch, the books we read, etc.

Why do I say this? First, let us look at the word "other":

1 : not being the one or ones first mentioned or included <broke my other arm>
2 : having one come before that is not included or counted : SECOND <every other day>
3 : not the same : DIFFERENT <any other color would be better>

Look at all three ways to see the "other". Is this what the "other" is?

Now we have to ask: who is this "other"?

And here it gets interesting because you can say:
"You are the other"
and I can reply
"No, you are the other."

Let us look at an historical example:

In Boston, before the "Great Famine" or "Irish Potato Famine", there was a certain number of immigrants from Ireland in the city that already included both Protestants and Catholics. Then the tragedy of the famine triggered a massive emigration from Ireland; for a lot of people the choice was to die from starvation or to try to escape from it. Some went to London. Others crossed the Atlantic. In result, the numbers for the Irish population in Boston exploded along with the population of other cities like New York and Chicago. Many of these new Irish immigrants were Catholic, poor and did not speak English.

Does this situation sound familiar?  They were the "other".

But is that what the "other" is all about? Is it just a matter of where I come from, the language I speak, the faith (or lack of it) I have, what 'side of the tracks' I come from?

Well, sometimes the "other" can be the Democrat on television and one of us may yell: "liberal idiot".
The "other" can be the Republican on the radio and one of us may grunt: "conservative moron".

Maybe the "other" is closer to home: a family member that you do not speak to anymore or an ex-husband, an ex-girlfriend, an ex-lover, etc.

And yet, the "other" does not have to be someone you perceive as an adversary...

The "other" can also be the teacher that believes in you.
The "other" can be a friend that gave you a ride when your car broke down.
The "other" can be the stranger that calls 911 when your house is on fire.

So when we meet the "other", what should we do?

I would like to share the following from the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as he himself was once 'the other' in a most extreme and terrible way when he was a prisoner of the Nazis during WWII:

To approach the 'Other' in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it. It is therefore to receive from the 'Other' beyond the capacity of the 'I', which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught.

Do not be afraid of the "other".

Perhaps you have something to teach him...
Perhaps she has something to teach you...

1 comment:

  1. One of most rewarding books I read that deals with the question of the "other" and the relationship between 'you' and 'I' is Martin Buber's "I and Thou". It can be a bit challenging but if you have the time give it a try. :)