Thursday, December 1, 2011

In the Presence of the Other

Nothing is more important to me than being heard. Reflecting on what enhances communication and what hinders it, I have recently become aware of the presence of the "Other", that uncomfortable and unseen thing that sometimes creeps into conversations. This shows up in many ways, and I suspect that each of us has a slightly different perspective. Let me offer you some examples to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Many years ago I approached a friend and shared with her that my grandmother had just died. She said "oh, I'm so sorry", and promptly changed the subject. The Other is often a taboo subject of some sort that causes someone to shut down and turn away. There is a much more subtle example on the other end of the spectrum.On occasion I have shared an opinion or belief, and heard in response something like this: "I wonder if this isn't a better word to describe what you're feeling (offering a word that changes the intent of what I said)... I totally understand what you're saying, we're so much alike." In this instance the response to the perceived sense of otherness is to adjust it to better reflect the listener's experience so there can be a bonding experience.

I have my own powerful and  personal reactions to the presence of the Other. Growing up in a reserved household, I experience great shock and dismay when confronted with a dramatic emotional blast. I may be similarly stunned when someone says or does something that confronts me with the reality of how unlike me they are. In both these instances I am simply struck dumb, in such a state of shock that I can barely move, let alone speak.

Given these everyday conversational hits and misses, and our likely very normal reactions when we experience the Other, it is perhaps not surprising that we find churches banning interracial couples from membership, states creating restrictive laws about immigration, and a Congress that is so polarized they can't be civil to one another, let alone get any work done.

As we move into the holiday season, I wonder what might happen if each of us sat in the presence of the Other, with all of our differences and disagreements, armed only with a sense of curiosity and a desire to understand? Earlier today I found myself humming "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me". Perhaps if we could all endure the unknown, the differences, just a moment longer, a bit more light could, and would, come into the world.