Otherizing

May 24, 2013

As a Native New York Jew who grew up in the counter-culture of New Mexico and spent my early twenties in northern California, the American South is as foreign to me as Mongolia. Maybe more. And so visiting the Bible Belt is a perfect opportunity for me to walk my talk and reject the impulse to “otherize.”

Otherizing is a word I thought made up, but then I found it in the Urban Dictionary online. Also my friend Elizabeth Lesser uses it in a TED talk. So I’m in good company. Thou shalt not otherize is one of the pillars of the Judeo-Christian traditions. It did not make it onto the stone tablets, but (IMHO) it should have.

As I travel the country sharing the common teachings of lovingkindness at the core of the world’s diverse religions, I place special emphasis on the Abrahamic tradition of “welcoming the stranger.” Recently, I taught an interspiritual workshop in the South and all my own otherizing responses were triggered. It was one of the only times that my message of the universal love that lies at the core of all faiths was met with anything besides a resounding YES. In fact, the minute I started talking about the beauty of Islam, I saw smoke coming out of people’s ears. And when I led the group in chanting the name of God in Arabic, mature grown-ups began to leave the room. I was flabbergasted. What happened to the love fest I had come to expect? I found myself catapulted into the role of stranger, and I was not welcome there.

That night I spoke to my husband on the phone. “Tough crowd,” I said.

“Remember where you are,” Jeff said. “You are in Martin Luther King country. Be a prophet of peace.”

“Good idea,” I said.

And so I showed up again the next day disarmed and ready. By the end of our time together, heart-gates were swinging open and the most dogmatic were testifying to the connecting power of love.

But what about me? What about my close encounter with breaking the commandment? I almost otherized. I started to tell myself a whole story about how these people are not like me. They are narrow minded and racist; I am open and inclusive. I support universal health care; they voted against their own interests. They believe in heaven and hell; I dismiss such notions as being something along the lines of “the opiate of the masses”—delusional and dangerous. Even our costumes were radically different: conservative polyesters (them); flowey silks and low-cut linens (me). I have way more in common with Mongolians stirring pots of goat stew over dung fires on the Steppes. Off I went, spiraling into my lonely little superiority.

But then I caught myself. I reminded myself that if we are all one, we are all one. That the illusion of separation is what causes violence and oppression. The minute we identify an individual or a group as being the Other, we banish ourselves to a spiritual wasteland and justify treating someone else with anything less than lovingkindness. This is the sin. This is what it means to miss the mark: the drawing of artificial boundaries to bisect the circle of our interconnectedness with all beings.

Here’s a practice I try to cultivate: When I travel to a different community, I show up. I ask my hosts to share with me what they love most about their lives, their landscapes, their faith. I accompany them to religious services in their church and I hang out with their kids; I eat their regional foods, swim in their waters, hike in their mountains, and explore their neighborhoods. I listen to them. This discipline is bearing fruit. Rather than feeling depleted and beaten down when I return home to my safety zone (where people are more like me and I can count on being agreed with), I am stretched and gratified—like a good workout at the gym. My love muscles are growing.

It’s nice when I can preach to the choir and everyone nods their heads, tears of gratitude springing to their eyes in response to my suggestion that we are naturally interspiritual beings who are specially designed to embrace the sacred everywhere we encounter Her. But it feels good to extend myself beyond the confines of my own little sub-culture once in a while and sing this love-song in foreign lands where people may actually believe that all Muslims are terrorists and all Jews are greedy and all gays are going to burn for eternity. Because when we sit together and begin to peel back the layers of possibility, it turns out that just about everyone everywhere affirms that Ultimate Reality is a unified field and that no matter what names we ascribe to it, God is One. And its true name is Love.

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3 Responses to “Otherizing”

  1. This is so beautiful and so true Mirabai! Thank you for the reminder to beware of “otherizing” and that the true name of God is Love. The truth is so simple….thanks for the reminder. Much love to you in your travels as an inspirational teacher!

  2. JonnaLynn said

    I appreciate very much your discussion of the commandment, “Thou shalt not otherize.” In recent years, I’ve come to recognize a prevailing fear that undergirds many reactions about religion and politics. It is as if individuals must grip their belief system so tightly and prostelytize in order to affirm their own security. Like those in your audience who walked out, they just can’t take the risk of releasing some of their faith notions to accept new perspectives.
    “Perfect love casts out fear.” Your approach to avoiding otherizing and embracing loving the other is the only way to address fear.

  3. Lou Wolner said

    The “otherize walk” through the valley of darkness and ambiguity is the walk we all need to take in order to deepen our commitment to Love. This takes courage. I looking for my opportunities in knowledge and behavior.

    One way to understand the other is know that morality has numerous components such as Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, according to developmental psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. From my experience the components that show the greatest divergence for me are Loyality–to what?; Authority to whom or what; and Sanctity to whom or what.

    Having knowledge that we and “strangers” have different qualitative takes on morality, is the first step of not falling into the trap of “posing the enemy.”

    Lou Wolner

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