The Familiar vs. the Foreign (#1)

“Would we really know ourselves?”  That line is from a long poem I began writing many years ago. The question remains. Most of us live our lives in a construct I call a story line, built out of experiences, selectively remembered and reconfigured to help us make sense out our lives, to help us determine our relevancy to people, and to our time and place in the Universe. I believe we cannot avoid doing this exercise, whether or not we ever step back and think about how we do it.

One of the oddities that appear as a corollary to this process is the ongoing tensions we experience in defining our differences and similarities to other people. On the all to familiar one hand, we know ourselves as individuals, separate and distinct from those other people. Whether or not ants are as concerned with this process as we are, we don’t know or care; we are not ants and for us knowing that we are not  simply interchangeable components in a social system is essential to our sense of well being.

On the just as familiar other hand, we feel we are connected to other people, closer to some than to others, but somehow connected nevertheless, even if only in enmity. But it is on the boarder line of friendship, or collegial work associates where the comfort of being “familiar” gets challenged by the reality of difference. And it is there where more often  than not we respond to the exhibition of difference as if it is a challenge to us.

We are surprised when a friend or mate dismisses as a worthless waste of time the movie we couldn’t wait to tell them about. We don’t get curious about the differences in opinion, no, instead, we get defensive about our experience. We respond as if the difference is a challenge. Of course, sometimes it is that, generated by the same kind of surprise: “you liked that; how on earth could you think that was a great movie?”

Now none of that is a big deal; certainly not worth spending writing or reading time on. But where it does become important is when those difference are about things that matter to us. Then those differences play a role in shaping our friendships, defining our work relationships, and in the larger social context fuel the antagonisms that have more and more often become the tattered fabric of our political relationships.

Thinking about how to think about these differences will be the subject of subsequent blogs; but for now, a little self-refection at our own automatic knee jerk responses to something that challenges our long held opinions is probably worth practicing.


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