We’ve all experienced it. It might have been a classroom where none of the other students were known to you. Maybe it was a conference where every other attendee, except you, seemed to have an old friend with whom to sit. Perhaps the first day on a new job left you feeling as though you had taken on the loneliest assignment in the world. As adaptable as we human beings are, those moments of being “the other” can be among the most excruciating experiences we encounter. Such occasions are the very definition of being alone. Whether due to being new to a group, or of different race, gender, age, language or any other distinguishing characteristic of ourselves, it’s a role likely each of us would rather not have to play.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself in just such circumstances a number of times. Among several college classroom presentations, a conference in Nicaragua and a seminar at a New England retreat, I occupied the role of the other, unknown to those around me, unfamiliar with people who generally seemed to be quite familiar with one another, and in one case, not even able to converse in the same language as my peers. To be sure, each of the venues was voluntary on my part and my expectations of unfamiliarity were identical to the reality in each situation; there were no surprises. But anticipating that reality did not make for an easier adjustment to it.
What is the element deep inside that moves a group toward exclusivity and separation? Comfort? What is it inside of our own cognizance that tends to inhibit an immediate acceptance of each other? Fear? What is the addiction we have to being part of the group, even at the expense of one who is not? Suspicion? Psychologists have the answer to these and related questions, I’m sure. As for me, I’m just left with the uncomfortable feelings.
But I experienced something else, an unexpected phenomenon. Within these moments of feeling apart from the group, one venue left me feeling welcomed. And interestingly, the place where I was in fact the most “other-wise” than my fellow participants, is where I became most comfortably assimilated.
My week in Nicaragua was spent attending a workshop for rural cooperative members, a “certificate program” which presented the holistic elements of successful organizations and individuals, including elements of cooperative history, organizational innovation, gender issues, environmental impact, spirituality in work and organizational/individual health. (We even shared a hike to the top of Peñas Blancas mountain, together!)
I arrived at the conference site on Sunday evening. By Monday morning there were no cliques or sub-groups, only a room filled with expectant participants, fifty Nicaraguans and two gringos.
Did I mention that, to my great embarrassment, I still do not speak Spanish? That every word addressed to me and every response I offered had to be filtered through an interpreter? Integrating with a new group is hard enough. Inserting oneself into an assembly in another country is more so. And acceptance in the face of differing languages is a gulf many of us might deem too wide to conquer. In truth, I had met some of the attendees in previous settings. But the gathering at the base of Peñas Blancas embraced me as a full partner in our mutual journey of education, and in ways I do not always experience in such gatherings of such disparate folks.
A smile, a nod, a handshake and even a wave each have the capacity to draw one into the heart of a crowd; I received gifts of each. Few words were exchanged among us, given my previously-referenced language deficit, but that insufficiency mattered not. I felt “at home.”
One week later, I attended another seminar, with attendees of similar outlooks on topics such as the environment, energy and the economy. We traveled from different sections of the country, sought the same kinds of insights and shared similar expectations. We even spoke the same language. Yet here, among fellow countrymen and women, I experienced a curious solitariness. Small groups had assembled for a social hour and busily chatted away, I imagine sharing their stories of travel to the site, renewing perhaps previous acquaintances, discovering those elements of likeness which cultivate the feeling of belonging to one another and the group at large. Several times I sidled up to a cluster in hopes of inserting myself, and each occasion was met with barely an acknowledgement. Of course, each moment made the next even more awkward.
Over the course of the weekend, my role as the other dissipated and I connected with any number of friendly and enthusiastic people. Small group interactions which necessitate collective participation and expose your thoughts, experiences and uniqueness usually open the doors to collegiality and even friendships. But I can’t help but wonder what there is in our national culture or customs that seems to require this sort of justification before acceptance is extended to strangers. Are they less worthy in one moment than the next?
Naturally, we are all inclined to make judgments about others based upon what we hear and the behaviors we observe. But in the wake of the unqualified reception I received in one setting and the awkward time of trial in the other, I now more clearly recognize the duty that I have to others. New acquaintances deserve my immediate and best efforts at inclusiveness. It may just be that my Nicaraguan associates have experienced sufficient hardship and trials in life to understand that there is no time for artificial barriers when it comes to embracing the other….