Just Us

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Teresa

In college I studied comparative religions after realizing that the organic chemistry requirement of the pre-med track wasn’t for me. What I loved about religious studies was the deep dive into worldviews and how belief systems can become the ideological external axis mundi around which one’s whole life can orient. Such orientations drive actions and ways of being in the world, and can prove just as limiting as the beliefs we hold about ourselves in our inner landscape.

One of the biggest themes that traversed throughout undergraduate and graduate coursework was that of “Self and Other.” This quote from Yasutani Roshi sums it up: “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” From that “Us vs. Them” stance, peace doesn’t stand a chance. From that stance, the worst of our politics, racism, terror, and nationalism stems at micro and macro levels.

The rifts of self and other aren’t held solely in a collective sense. Peace is an inside job that begins by looking squarely at the ways we subscribe to Othering and threatening belonging in our own up close and personal lives. In what ways do you feel like the “other”? In what ways do you witness Othering in your life? In what ways do you other another?

Consider this passage from Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Imperium:

“Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.
The first is the plague of nationalism.
The second is the plague of racism.
The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.
All three share one trait, a common denominator–an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality.
Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason.
In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims.
Every attempt to calm conversation will fail. He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause. Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon.
There are no people–there is only the cause.
A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only–its enemy.
Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist.
That is why enemy is always present, is always with us.”

Being the other threatens our sense of general and genuine belonging. This is hardwired into us at a very primal level of our neurological make up as a key indicator and litmus test to determine if we are okay in the world.

As Jerry and Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital, descendant of Korean and Iranian immigrants, talk about in this episode, aside from feeling alone, Othering causes a whole ream of emotions such as fear and shame. Bijan talks about his experience not thinking about belonging with this classmates in grade school until the Iran Hostage Crisis in the 70s. Then being bullied for half his heritage and experiencing “not belonging,” a feeling he’s felt until the support of the people against the January 27th executive order banning travels from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

Even as I write this, that such blatant Othering exists and persists infuriates me. (And, like Bijan, my faith in humanity was restored when I saw the reaction against the travel ban.) I think of The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss (which the internet tells me was published in 1953), a story of how two groups of Sneetches–ones with little stars on their bellies and ones without–struggled with Othering and belonging. “You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all” writes Seuss in regards to the visible difference between them…

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game? Not at all.
You only could play if your bellies had stars
And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars.

The ones without stars, who were left out of the games, then wanted stars to be special. By the time all the sneetches had stars on their bellies, the original star-bellied sneetches took theirs off so they could tell who was who. And back and forth it went until,

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches.
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars and whether
They had one, or not, upon thars.

Like the Sneetches, my wish for us is that we forget about our own equivalent to our ‘’stars and whether/They had one, or not, upon thars.” That we orient our lives, being, and action towards our common humanity, and remember that there is no them; there’s just us.