Jen Jackson Quintano

Otherness is a hot topic these days. Public discourse is full of comparisons of red states and blue states. Immigration is the issue du jour. We talk of the Muslim faith a great deal, both in terms of extremism and in terms of whether it’s okay to simply worship in our communities. Awareness of transgenderism has hit the mainstream. We are all fascinated by the Other. We want to know what makes the Other tick. 

But we are also apprehensive. Much of our discussion of Otherness is fear-based. Mostly, we want to know how the Other – whether Republican, Democrat, Muslim, Mexican, transgender, or otherwise “different than me” – will affect our communities, our families, and our day-to-day lives. We fear change, and the Other represents change.

The radio program “This American Life” ran a fascinating episode a couple months ago titled “Will I Know Anyone At This Party?” The focus was largely on St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the town’s response to an influx of Somali immigrants. The newcomers did not fit in with their appearance, language, customs or beliefs. To many residents of St. Cloud, this represented a menace to their own appearance, language, customs and beliefs. Modern-day St. Cloud has a sense of identity – namely white, English-speaking and Christian, involved in bake sales and soccer practice – and the Somali community’s mere existence threatened this identity. St. Cloud, like all of us, wants everything to stay just as it is. We all have a tendency to develop a sense of self, and then we become rigid in it.

Most of us resist the notion that the nature of existence is change. But the truth is, nothing stays the same. The Other – just like erosion and entropy, birth and death – is an agent of this change. Everyone in St. Cloud descends from immigrants. Even the First Nations descend from people who walked here from elsewhere. Homo sapiens has been mobile for the duration of its existence on this planet; if not for this fact, the United States wouldn’t exist, and Mesopotamia would be a very crowded place indeed.

So with millennia of change informing our existence, why are we so resistant to it? Why is the Other so scary? There are many evolutionary and biological explanations for this, but I’m most interested in the deeper, interior reasons. I think a big one has to do with shadow. In short, our shadow is the part of our personality that is rejected by our sense of identity. Usually, we look at it in terms of the negative. If we have been taught that arrogance is a “bad” attribute, then any arrogance that we actually possess goes unseen. We deny that we are at all arrogant. That part of ourselves becomes Other.

Furthermore, when we encounter people who display the shadow element we deny, we strongly react with distaste, and we often do it with the same element that inspires the distaste. Thus, when interacting with an arrogant person, we may take on a holier-than-thou attitude, feeling superior for not being so arrogant. The Otherness inside us greets the Otherness outside us, and if we are not aware of it, the results can be ugly.

In the instance of St. Cloud, perhaps residents are fearfully rejecting the non-conforming Other because they fear the parts of themselves that don’t conform to the generally agreed upon community identity. They fear not being accepted themselves, so they reject the Other. I know this is an oversimplification, but I think it’s an important part of the equation. 

We at Murmuration Community will be offering a women’s retreat this spring that focuses on these elements of shadow, fear and Other. In a country currently so fearful and divided – so focused on Otherness – it is time to delve inward to see where such feelings and responses originate. It’s time to greet the Other within ourselves so we can bring compassion to the Other that exists beyond us.