By Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
A Paradox that can paralyze love
As humankind, we share common experience, yet are each totally different in the way we put it all together. We are amazingly the same, but in the totality of physical, mental, emotion and spiritual experience – let alone personal histories – we are individuals. Differences are the basis of infinite creativity. But they present a dilemma.
Here’s the paradox. As humans, we’re 99.9% like the rest of the species. But the .1% of difference can drive us apart with drastic results.
How do such relatively small differences create havoc? My observation is that differences rouse emotions, and one of the strongest is fear. Maybe understanding the fear will help with interpreting the actions that follow from it.
A Key Trigger
I posit that our comfort in the world derives from taking for granted that we fit, we belong, and thus we’re safe. Generally, our differences don’t matter too much. If confident in that view, we are open to love whomever. Except that we can’t live perpetually in that comfort zone. The world is full of situations that can cast us into discomfort.
Hence, to allow us to function in daily life, we’ve entered a social contract based on being similarly able to follow the same rules: in cities, how to move about in crowds, line up, avoid grabbing for the cabbage in the store’s food bin, speaking in quiet tones in public. On and on!! Friendships and groups can form because we know the rules of civil behaviour and share important assumptions and values. Or so we think.
Encountering the Alternate Truth: Separateness
The contract can suddenly be broken. Without looking into the social, economic, historical, religious reasons for social breakdown, we can try to observe what enables a potential breakdown to become a serious split that takes apart a community, a country. Conflicts can turn to war when supported by populations who have become separated and polarized. Anxiety and fear fuel antagonistic talk. It can happen so quickly.
In Yugoslavia, Croats, Serbs, and a variety of peoples had lived together harmoniously for 40 years before they died by the hundreds of thousands at each other’s hands. A recent documentary, Once Brothers, follows the relationship of NBA basketball player Vlade Divac, a Serb, who in the late 80’s and early 90’s was close friends with a fellow player on the Yugoslavian national team, Drazen Petrovic, a Croat. The war separated them totally, their ethnic difference suddenly more important than the close bond between them. They could not remain friends and as Petrovic died in 1993, they never reconciled. But isn’t that over there, where Slavs have a violent history?
No, it can happen anywhere. As a first-generation English-Quebecer, I experienced a bitter encounter with a close English-speaking French Canadian friend when I questioned aspects of the Language Bill 101. I was told that, as an English person, I couldn’t possibly understand the issues. I had studied the issues and supported the Quiet Revolution but that didn’t matter. I had suddenly stopped being Rosemary and became the Other – an English Person. It’s as if my friend saw a label appear over my head. Tensions in the wider world entered our dining room and what had perhaps lain under the surface erupted – our difference. (My friend and I didn’t lose our friendship but we have never since raised the subject of the English and French in Quebec).
Experiencing a Split
Even without ethnic, religious, national differences, the discomfort of the invisible pushback, when we ‘fall out’ with someone close to us, has probably been felt by everyone at some time. A person who I think is like me, who ‘gets’ me (understands who I am and where I come from) unexpectedly says something that indicates she’s not getting me at all. I’m taken aback. The degree of felt separateness seems connected to how big is the gap between the assumed closeness and the extent of the expressed difference. “You would really do that?” “You think I’m like that?” The familiar and secure fade to black. The reality of the other, in Buber’s terms, has smacked me in the face. I was immersed in I-Thou, and your response has cast me and you as others.
We each seem to pose a danger to the other’s security. Feeling separate isn’t nearly as nice as feeling connected. It isn’t as safe, out there, on my own.
Reason, persuasion, or encouragement don’t help at this time. It’s not intellectual argument: if at least one of the people feels the break in personal connection, the way back to comfort isn’t evident. The rules of formal debate, for instance, allow for fierce verbal argument without any of the parties feeling they are separate: all are in the game together.
A Painful Outcome – The Break
A “break-up” is initiated by one of the friends who felt pushed to the outside, not in the game. “I don’t belong, I thought we had things in common, I was wrong and I’m getting out of here.” In the critical game of social connectedness it feels like I’m losing.
Before the separateness was an emotional state, but declaring oneself outside the relationship leaves one further beyond the safety zone. If we’ve marshalled allies and developed a counter-group, we may be less isolated. But we can’t take for granted our belonging the way we once did.
In the Middle of the Break
In Jesus Christ Super Star, the song Gethsemane is very emotional for me (as is the scriptural account of the time in the Garden). Jesus had reached the point of utter separation from his fellows and is in anguish. All the awfulness that followed was the result of Jesus being a clear outsider of every relationship and group. Right after the closeness of the Last Supper with his friends, they turned away from his growing distress and slept. He then understood fully how different he was and the fate that was unfolding because of the difference. When I have felt isolated, it’s been a relief to remember that Jesus knows all about that pain. There’s nothing I’m feeling that He doesn’t know.
Finding Christ in the centre of separation is probably the best of the up-sides of the experience.
Another can be an affirming of oneself. When recognizing that we’re different from from others, a good kind of pride can be born, in spotting that we have some essence of separate personality. In being who I am, I’ve seen something in a moment that others didn’t. Or, I’ve seen a real flaw in the common opinion. I can claim my difference and see it as something of value. I can claim who I am.
Another positive is that I may have come to terms with my personality. If one has lots of breaks, lots of times of not fitting in, useful questions may arise through the hurt of alone-ness. “Am I a difficult person? Is my behaviour outside reasonable expectations? Did I really mean what I was saying? Do I really want back in to that relationship?” I can become the agent of my own learning in a bad situation. Separation may grow a greater ability to love.
And perhaps the rift can heal. If the eruption never happens again, or if we can talk about it and together determine to heal the breach, connections may be restored.
Is there a Summary?
The bottom-line task may be: to recognize the impact and importance of a moment of sudden alienation from a trusted other, and to dropping the fear and responding as compassionately as possible. I don’t think Christ was big on unnecessary break-ups.
Does this make any sense to you, fellow traveler?