The “Otherness” Quandary
A recent article in The NYT, “Wired to Be Besties,” revealed scientific evidence that we are by nature inclined to befriend people who are most like us. The more “otherness” we sense, the less likely we are to become close. If you think about it for a while, and be honest with yourself, you can sense this inclination, not only with regard to other people, but toward anything that is strange, new, or ‘Ugh!’ in our experience.
Pervasive cultural memes may seem to contradict nature as they encourage us to embrace “otherness.” Chief among these are TV ads and programs showing Americans of different ethnicities sharing good times and life experiences. Such memes are often criticized because they do not reflect reality, so much as an alternate reality.
But in this era of unprecedented global communication, personal contact with diverse people, cultural exchange and trade, embracing “otherness” seems to me important to promoting peace and understanding among us. If we do only “what comes naturally” we might find ourselves living within very narrow confines, with a lot of stress and unresolved conflict.
A case might be made, then, for the idea that we have to practice being with “otherness.” After all, what has been “wired” can be “rewired.” But it takes an act of the will and a willingness to endure some discomfort. If we come to sense a greater benefit by changing, over the complacence of remaining the same in our preferences and habits, then we might embark on a program of change. (The acknowledgement of a drinking problem, the wish to be sober, and the decision to get help at AA meetings comes to mind.) What we listen to, view and read, i.e., our “information feed,” might be a good place to begin.
Archie and Edith Bunker were forerunners in dramatizing the conflicts that arise for most of us as we face the variety of experiences in daily life. So much of everyday living, if it is to be successful, requires easing ourselves outside of our comfort zone.
And sometimes the help of an “other” is necessary.
If we acknowledge ourselves to be evolving creatures who are free to choose from a broad spectrum of possible behaviors, then we can accept both our natural inclination to prefer sameness, and our “other” interest in experimenting.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with(in) me!