The United States of Otherness

by BC

Our reading this Sunday came to us from the African American poet and Unitarian Universalist, Adam Lawrence Dyer, from his poem, “We are Jazz.”

I’m not much of a neighborly person. I know it’s a terrible thing to admit. You’ll see me about to step outside only to wait until people go away, keep my interactions to a short nod and smile, and assume the most suspicious plots when a neighbor strikes up a conversation.

I don’t think I have anyone to blame but myself for this behavior. But I did grow up in a rather gossipy neighborhood and I never liked that. On top of it I had a family that was always contrasting ourselves with people that were not “us” – people that were the other. I was reminded constantly of that belief and raised to be wary of anyone that was the other.

Set aside the racist subtext of this upbringing, it was a rather isolated view of the world. Fast forward to present day, we are now a year and a few months in our new home here in Lexington and I still carry some of that same attitude about neighbors – at least the part of being suspicious of them at all times.

I’m very mindful of this trait. As with all habits it’s harder to change than you can imagine. Upon moving into our home not far from here, I expected to get a flood of neighborly visits. This being more or less the South in many respects and with the assurance of the previous owners of our house that these new neighbors would most definitely reach out to us.

And so we waited. And no introductions were made. No stereotypical Southern hospitality came. Eventually, though, my partner, who is far friendlier than I could ever hope to be, struck up a conversation with the next door neighbor. And then the one of the neighbors behind us.

I met them in short time and they were all pleasant people. Upon learning what I did for a living, I heard all about their relatives that were ministers in traditions that would raise an eyebrow at Unitarian Universalism. Or not. You never know.

There was one last neighbor behind us, however, that always managed to dodge waves or nods or even attempted small talk. He reminded me of me in many ways, perhaps wondering who these strange new neighbors were and what they wanted. Upon saying something to him once after his kids kicked a ball over the fence, he just stared.

It was a few months in to living in our new home that we started to notice something. Whenever we went outside, he would call his children inside. Time and time and time again, called back in at one or both of us venturing outside. I would be lying if I didn’t say my mind went immediately to homophobia.

When you’re the member of a marginalized population, you get used to it and tired of it at the same time. And like Elie Wiesel said of Jewish history – that there are no coincidences, I suspect such a statement is true for the LGBT population and all populations that are used to being the other.

And so this became the story of our interactions with our neighbors. Plus the difficulty of getting to know people in Lexington that aren’t Unitarian Universalists. They say when you get a dog or kids that that will help.

Well kids take a lot of planning, so we got a dog. And I’m not sure we did that part right. We adopted a fierce looking seventy-five pound Rottweiler. I don’t think we got the memo on what breeds to avoid. In the very least, we have no need for a security system these days.

It may turn out one day that I will be proven to be overreacting — that two gay men with a Rottweiler whose neighbor swiftly whisks away his children upon seeing them have nothing to really worry about. But between my own very real suspicions of neighbors and, I suspect, their own wonderings about us, I’m curious about a deeper problem here in the United States.

If I had my way I would say that we are a meaner, disconnected, isolated, and lonely nation. Though I realize every generation makes that claim on the way we are with one another in some way. A handful of years ago, a sociologist out of Cornell University published a report showing that the number of confidants – close friends — Americans have had shrunk by one.

Over the past decades the average American has gone from having and knowing three confidants to share personal details with to two. Not a significant statistic, except for one last piece of data. Within the confidants we now have in this day and age, our expectation of finding emotional support is minimal.

We might still have friends, but we don’t expect it to go beyond surface level. Add on top of that fact reports from Pew Research that the number of Americans who never interact with their neighbors has sharply increased after the first decade of the 2000s, and you start to have an alarming picture of how divided we might be from one another.

It isn’t just a personality trait of mine that separates me from my neighbors, but rather an increasing demand on all of our time. Mark Dunkelman, a public policy specialist and author of the book, “The Vanishing Neighbor,” suggests that our increased disconnect with our neighbors and our lack of friends – especially those we can confide in – is due to, ironically, our hyperconnected world.

He contends that we all have limited social capital and more ways than ever to spend it. Couple this with our relative sufficiency – as in, it is Kroger that provides our needs, not the community or the neighbor next door with that extra cup of sugar – from this we no longer have as great a need for neighborly or friendly connections as we once did.

And so, too, why talk with your neighbors when you could text, skype, chat online, or binge watch Stranger Things on Netflix. This leads to a startling realization. We are disconnected more from face to face interactions, but more connected than ever behind the screen of a computer or phone.

Add in several other factors – the hostility of urban planning to pedestrian interaction in many locations, the design of suburbia in general – it’s amazing the commentaries you can find from urban planners on the design of garages and how they are killing society – and an us vs. them discourse coming from not only our politicians but some partisan media as well, it really isn’t one issue alone.

What does one make of all of this? I do not know. What I do know is that much of the commentary on our current political climate revolves around many of these same discussions. We hear the message again and again, if only we talked to our neighbors more, imagine what the world could be.

I am of two minds on such a statement. First, it reeks of liberal superiority. And I say this as a liberal. If only I could talk to the diehard supporters of our President, they wouldn’t have voted the way they did. And second, I recognize that beyond our imagined outcomes of being a more connected society, we do need to reconnect. Hurray for paradox.

But how are you feeling in this country of ours in 2017? Are you feeling more connected than ever? Some may say yes given the mobilizing and uniting we are finding nationwide. How about in your neighborhood? On your street? In your family? How about here? Are you finding connection in this building with the people around you? Have you introduced yourself to a newcomer lately? Made a new friend?

I ask these questions knowing that for some of you the answers are all over the place. But I truly feel we need to step back from our own thoughts for a moment and see how we operate in this microcosm called church, let alone the world. I also ask because I feel that being in relationship is fundamental to Unitarian Universalism.

A colleague of mine out of Rochester, New York suggests that the prime goal of Unitarian Universalism, meaning the saving message that we are supposed to shout from the rooftops, is that we equip ourselves to heal the disconnection we find in the world.

That our primary hope rests on relationship – relationship with ourselves, our families, our friends, strangers, those we disagree with, the oppressed, the oppressor, our neighbors, the people we are sitting near this morning.

And this congregation here has not shied away from such a goal. We have done our own work on healing disconnection amongst our fellow congregants. You worked on and adopted what is called a Covenant of Right Relationship, which hangs in the foyer, as a means to explain how we will relate to one another here. It’s aspirational, I know, but it’s a step in the right direction.

And it’s right there in our principles as well – those seven non-creedal but sometimes “creed-ish” statements we read and print and post. What if we read each one with the phrase, “In my relationship with…” before the statement. In my relationship with myself and others I will affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In our relationship with the world, we will respect and honor the interdependent web of existence.

Relationship is surely underscored in some way, shape, or form in all that we uphold as a value in our congregations. And like elsewhere in our nation, some of us hold to it better than others.

I remind us of this anchor in our faith not to suggest that it is easy to mend relationships or even begin them with those we’ve seen as the other up until this point, but to remind us that we have the tools embedded in our values to liberate ourselves from the smaller divides we happen upon.

We can begin by being honest about our first principle: honoring worth and dignity in all persons. The word good does not once make an appearance in that principle. Not all people are good, but they all have worth and dignity.

This allows us to hold people accountable for whatever it is they do in their lives, but leaves an avenue for empathy to emerge. This reminds me of the Confucians and their goal of finding harmony with all, even in disagreement.

I suppose this begs the question, is it possible to remain in relationship with someone that has committed an act of evil, however defined and whatever grade of evil you choose – and what does that relationship look like? It certainly isn’t buddy buddy, but what, if anything can that be? I won’t answer that for you.

But from this empathy, worth, and dignity, I truly feel that some intellectual humility can go a long way in being in right relationship as well. We have our opinions. We have our own understandings of the world, and for progressives right now, some of those understandings have been shaken.

But that doesn’t mean we need to further the divide between any definition of us and them. I would hope that the election of a man with the rhetoric of our current President would motivate Americans to build community. I would hope it would challenge us to ask the question: how do we talk to, for example, our Appalachian neighbors without insisting they voted against their own best interest or assuming they don’t know any better?

Beyond all of the technological, urban planning, and other oddities that have divided us from others – I feel that underneath it all is a basic psychological need that has brought us to this point in our nation’s history. Our need for unity.

Australian political psychologist, Karen Stenner, who studies racism and authoritarianism, states that when a population feels their unity is being threatened, they act and vote in the interests of preserving that unity at all costs.

She writes:

…nothing is more certain to trigger authoritarianism “than the likes of ‘multicultural education,’ bilingual policies, and nonassimilation,” Stenner writes. “Our showy celebration of, and absolute insistence upon, individual autonomy and unconstrained diversity pushes those by nature least equipped to live comfortably in a liberal democracy not to the limits of their tolerance, but to their intolerant extremes.” By contrast, she notes, “nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes.

If you are anything like me, that statement at once lessens my faith in humanity and sheds some light on how we operate as a species. Part of me does not want to accept such an assertion and part of me knows there is a grain of truth to it. Perhaps a silo of grain. Normally I would feel helpless at such a conclusion about humanity.

But this, instead, leaves me feeling that the importance of healing disconnection, of being in right relationship with ourselves, our neighbors, and the world, is more important than ever. And when we say right relationship, we aren’t talking about right vs. wrong. We’re talking about authenticity.

In my own personal work, which falters miserably at times, I find remaining curious, open, and abundantly forgiving, of myself and others, goes a long way in having an authentic dialogue with someone I do not agree with. Forget the urban planning, forget being glued to my phone, or any of the other excuses, reaching across any perceived or real divide and beginning with curiosity can surprise you.

I do not have solid answers. This is another one of the many unsatisfying answers clergy are able to give in the face of national upheaval. But what I can say is that I know building authentic – not necessarily deep or lasting or life changing – but authentic, real, person-to-person dialogues, relationships, interactions – whatever you call them – it is a solid practice that enriches our own awareness of the world, and the tools for this are here in this faith.

That neighbor I mentioned earlier, the one that, at least in my mind, flees our presence every time we are outside – well, he’s started waving back. His children are no longer rushed inside when we are there, our fierce Rottweiler has become a neighborhood favorite, and I suspect many people are working hard to be in community with others – I know I am, with varying results.

It gives me hope. It gives me hope that we can start approaching one another with curiosity instead of fear or labeling or “otherness” in all that we do. It’ll take a long time to change, it may never fully change, but the effort is certainly worthwhile.

And so, to all of you, I simply ask you to remain curious with those you disagree with. Be open, assume best intentions, cultivate right relationship – simply start a dialogue. We can still hold people accountable, but we can also keep the communication flowing. Imagine what that can do. Let’s start doing that right here, right now, in this moment.