A couple days ago, I wrote about an experience where I felt I had been firmly put in the Other category. Although that particular story stands out in my memory, there have been countless other reasons I have been placed in the Not-Like-Us category and suffered the consequences of being Other. Yet, my experience as the Other is only part of the story. I aspire to be one of those sainted individuals who treats everyone as a valued friend, on equal footing and of equal importance no matter what differences there might be between us. I am not yet that person.About 3.5 years ago, after I realized my lengthy and deeply personal deconversion process had reached a point where I no longer felt like I belonged to the ranks of Christians, I felt adrift and went searching for a place where I belonged. I had spent over 20 years of my life entrenched in Christianity. Moving away from the religion that had shaped me and many of my relationships left me feeling unmoored, with a deep sense of loss and uncertainty about who I was without that label.
I wanted I needed to belong somewhere. I found my Same in a fascinating group of local nontheists. But finding my Same wasn’t quite enough to make me feel like I belonged. To truly belong to my Same, I felt I also needed an Other. And for that I turned on those who still felt at home in the religion I left.
I Other-ed the heck out of Christians, making broad, sweeping statements about the whole based on a very, very limited sample. Not to put too fine a point on it, I behaved like an ass. Instead of focusing on the acres and acres of common ground I share with people all along the religious spectrum, I mentally penned up most of the Christians I knew in an far-off field and hung a sign on the fence declaring that those inside were ‘Not Same’. I rarely engaged with many of my Christian friends and family members on any level beyond the superficial unless it was to argue with them. Looking back on that time, I am grateful that my behavior was challenged (mostly with love and grace) by some of the most beautiful people I know. There were some who were not afraid to speak up and tell me that I was out of line when I lumped the whole lot of everyone professing to be Christians together and made overarching judgments based on nothing more than the words or behavior of a handful of individuals. Because of their willingness to engage with me, even when I was at my least charming, I was able to realize a need to change myself if I wanted to live in a world bigger than the one person who thought just like me because she is me.
To me, this stands out as the most poignant example of me taking on the role of Other-er, although it is not the only time I have done it. There are countless tiny differences between me and the next human that can keep us apart if I let them. Sometimes I do it without even thinking, an off-the-cuff remark that sounds innocent enough until I think about it later and realize that I unnecessarily homed in on what separates me from someone instead of celebrating what draws me to them on this journey of humanity. Of course, I am different from everyone else in a variety of ways, and it isn’t wrong to recognize that. But in our current society, it seems that we are constantly being told to take sides against each other and I want to guard myself against that practice. I do not want to trivialize the wonder that is an individual by thinking I know them because of the things I might know about them. If there is something, anything, that I can connect with in another person that will open my mind and my heart to better understand them, I want to find it. Just as I have experienced pain, marginalization, and avoidance, I have caused others to experience those things. I am not proud of those moments when I have Other-ed people, but I know I must recognize my potential to act in a way that is contrary to my desire for unity and mutual respect and appreciation in order to combat those impulses. If nothing else, each experience on either side of the Other coin teaches me something valuable.
I’ve spent a lot of time in reflection on the fears, impulses, and desires that lend themselves to the practice of dividing humanity into Same versus Other. For more on that topic, check back on Monday for ‘Exploring the Other (Part 3)’.