Opening to the Spirit
Today’s word: Other
) The Other. People in our world who are different from us. For some this term is something to be afraid of. There was actually a horror movie in the seventies called “The Other”, and another haunted house mystery called "The Other" in the eighties.
Our media these days is great at giving us bad news from around the world. It's tempting to live in fear and surround ourselves with people who are “just like us”. Many mistrust immigrants or refugees, and express the sentiment that we should save our charity for people "like us". And yet . . .
Something remarkable has happened over the past week. There was a horrible tragedy a few days ago in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. A truck crashed into a busload of junior hockey players and many team members and helpers died. I once coached minor hockey and rode many busses to games. I can only imagine what agony that community is going through. Not many Canadians are hockey players from Saskatchewan, yet the heartfelt compassion and generous donations have been pouring in. I put my hockey stick on my front porch in solidarity with them. Though in an ironic way they represent “the other” for many Canadians, our compassion is limitless.
April is poetry month, and I am reminded of a poem by Charles Meigs entitled “Others”. Written as a prayer, it expresses the thought that the way to do something for God is by serving others, in deeds and prayers. Help me live for others. I think this a great sentiment. We have demonstrated over the past week that Canadians have empathy. I want to expand that empathy to people from other countries, cultures, and religions. My fondest wish is that “the Other” can be seen not as someone to be afraid of, but rather to welcome and celebrate.
) Where I grew up the word different was used as an insult. “She’s different!” meant that there was something wrong with her. “That’s different!” meant you should be suspicious. The coffee was weak, spices were salt and pepper, and the unexpected was unwelcome.
There were three families in our village that I remember as “other”. One family made themselves other by driving to town to attend a different church. One family was other because they were so poor they had no running water in their house and were often dirty. One family was other because they were rich and had recently moved to the village. As with any culture, there were many unspoken rules for behaviour. Be normal. Don’t be weird. Punish those who are.
I’m not sure what happened to me, but I have always been drawn to the other. I played with the poor kids, even though my mother did not let me. I also befriended the rich boy who was teased mercilessly by my classmates. I was a weirdo myself, for reasons I did not understand, and I found myself drawn to others who were at the edges.
Moving to the city was a new life for me. I was now “other” with my funny accent and lack of knowledge about many things. A bagel with cream cheese was an exotic food I was afraid to try. Soon I felt at home and embraced the diversity of city life. It is pretty hard to be weird when you live downtown - and even if you are, that's perfectly OK.
I don’t know what it is that makes me drawn to the other rather than afraid. But I am glad God made us in wonderful variety. Different may not always be good but it is not automatically bad. Try the strong coffee. Say hello to someone outside your normal circle. Travel with an open heart. Refuse to dismiss someone or some experience just because they are “other”.
) "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong!" The Ernie Quiz was a catchy Sesame Street lesson in critical thinking for preschoolers. Observation, classification, compare and contrast are ways of organizing information. Useful skills applied in all the sciences, language studies, medicine, law, communications or just about any discipline requiring us to identify patterns of similarity and difference.
And it worked. One day I discovered my four-year old sitting in the middle of the dining room floor, cheerfully chanting the jingle while sorting and folding a pile of clean socks from the laundry basket.
On the other hand, in my family of origin, the other was the one you wanted to include whenever you planned a party. We were a family of nine - a party already, but always the question was asked: besides ourselves, who else should we invite?
Too often other is a word that sets things apart. We speak of events on the other side of the world as happening to them not us, forgetting that we live in one interdependent world. We encounter the stranger as "other" and are aware of any number of differences like ethnicity, language, or culture. When we forget our common humanity, often for the most trivial reasons, otherness becomes an excuse to exclude.
Yet in the Hindu tradition, there's a saying: Atman is Brahmin. Meaning essentially this is that, there is no other. Reminding us that our penchant for separating and classifying should not obscure the reality that all life is one. That whatever details distinguish us as individuals, we are one in our common life, in a universe whose very structure is unified. What we have in common is more basic than what divides us. And everyone, everything - not despite but because of differences - does indeed belong!
) On another note entirely, it's Friday the 13th! Many wake up expecting today will be the unluckiest day of the year, a superstition usually traced back to that fateful day in October 1307 when the Knights Templar were ambushed and executed in Paris. That the number 13 is somehow unlucky dates back to before the common era, along with a notion that bad things happen on Fridays. These two fears collide to reinforce each other.
Disasters that occur all the rest of the year are more easily remembered if they fall on this date. How many can you name? In1970 a cyclone in Bangladesh kills hundreds of thousands; a plane crashes in the Andes back in 1972; a cruise ship capsizes in 2012 off the Italian coast; the November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
Does it help you to know that in all of 2018, today is the only Friday the 13th? A Dutch insurance firm study has determined that it's actually one of the luckiest days of the year. Perhaps everyone is a bit more cautious, so there are fewer car accidents and house fires on Friday the 13th. Time to seize the day and enjoy it for all it's worth!
One word, four voices voices - and now it's your turn: What are your thoughts on this word other?
Rev. Mead Baldwin pastors the Waterville & North Hatley pastoral charge; Rev. Lynn Dillabough is now Rector of St. Paul's in Brockville ON. She continues to write for this column as a dedicated colleague with the Eastern Townships clergy writing team; Rev. Lee Ann Hogle ministers to the Ayer’s Cliff, Magog & Georgeville United Churches; Rev. Carole Martignacco is Consulting Minister to UU Estrie-unitarian Universalists in North Hatley.