The headlines these past few weeks have read like a horror story. Humanity seems to be consumed with the notion of ‘other’. Our illusion of separateness has become so pervasive, I sometimes think that we’ll end up living in little walled enclaves all around the world. We find it comforting to believe that we are autonomous individuals, isolated from the world— our bodies are our boundaries.
If we took a moment to examine our earth, we’d grasp the absolute reality of our interconnectedness. Whether you come at it from an origin standpoint or microbial fingerprints, whether you examine magnetic force or atomic energy present in and around every living thing, you’ll be hard pressed to find a reasonable explanation for the exclusion of ‘other’. We are all the same, even in our uniqueness.
Categories have become a handy way to explain our preference for separateness. We have created whole political systems with the purpose of defining who the ‘other’ is. In a moment we can classify a person’s ideology and feel justified in our exclusion of them. “Oh, he’s a socialist.” No further need to see him as human… he is ‘other’. She is Muslim. Other. Conservative. Other.
Labels or categories do little more than create a vacuum between ourselves. We have little catch phrases that can help us easily identify which other groups we can put someone else in: Social Justice— progressives! personal energy— new agers! Patriarchy— feminists! There are a hundred little words or phrases I can say, that will create a divide between myself and another person.
The problem is, once someone has been placed in a group or category that is different from yourself, you have an unconscious expectation of negative behaviour. When confronted with someone who we perceive to be apart from ourselves, we perceive danger. And because we are constantly perceiving the world where the ‘dangerous other’ shares the same space we do, we walk around anticipating the worst from our fellow man.
Now, I am aware that dropping the classification habit would be a near impossibility for us pedantic humans, but imagine if our instinct to be on guard was diminished.
In John Steinbeck’s, East of Eden, he presents a theme of ‘potential nobility’. The story is a continuation of the Biblical, Cane and Abel story. We are all Cane— though we carry the curse, we also inherit the ability to redeem ourselves. It’s definitely one of my favourites books, and I would recommend it a thousand times over. In his book, Steinbeck highlights a mistranslated Hebrew word in the Genesis 4 passage: Timshel.
In most English translations the word has been translated thus:
- God promises Cain that he will conquer sin (“thou shalt rule over him”)?
- God orders Cain to conquer sin (“Do thou rule over him”)?
But, in the story, the word is correctly translated to give this meaning:
God blesses Cain with free will, leaving the choice to him (“Thou mayest rule over him”)?
Thou mayest! It’s the promise of potential: the potential to do good instead of evil, the potential to protect instead of harm, the potential to accept instead of reject.
If I can reframe my unconscious mind to expect goodness first, and not harm from someone who is different from myself, what would my life look like? Most likely, that consciousness of ‘other’ would begin to diminish. If I began to trust that all human spirit has a potential for nobility, how would my classifications change? Would people start to accept my potential for nobility (after all, we all believe we have the noblest intentions— if only others would see those intentions as such!)? What a beautiful world.
Timshel is my favourite word. I have pondered it for a very long time. Thou Mayest, friends… and if it’s true for you and I, it’s true for everyone. Believe it.