Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Us and Them

This was written in 2001, and just re-discovered. Can't think of a thing to change...

Since the September 11 disaster, I’ve been trying (as most people have, I suspect) to get a handle on how to fit all that into my life. I spent nearly twenty years studying community and how it enhances personal and social life. I discovered that the experience of "community"—what I call that sometimes-sudden awareness of deep connection among people—is very much like what mystics and teachers have described for centuries as "spiritual." I’ve recognized that in order to try to describe this feeling of profound connection, there’s a tendency to apply it to the group in which it appears. We identify with particular people. A concomitant tendency is to then exclude everybody else. The stronger this sense of community, the stronger the definition of its boundaries. Our instinctual need to categorize things in our environment then creates a concept of "us" versus "them."
It was pretty obvious on that day and immediately following it that many Americans felt personally attacked. Partly, that was a reaction to the assumed intention of the hijackers to hurt us as a people. "Us and them" became instantly prominent in descriptions, discussions and commentary about the event. Our survival instincts took over, and identifying the threat meant in a significant way identifying the enemy. If I think someone hates me, I am apt to focus on how he is different from me and how I can protect myself from this "stranger."
Politicians and media voices, of course, lauded the "uniting of Americans against the common threat." Patriotism became a positive value again after rather languishing for thirty years in the wake of an unpopular war. American flags began to fly all over the nation. This was not community in the sense of the word that I had sought to understand for the past twenty years. Perhaps, though, as someone said, it’s merely the other side of the coin.
No, I think not, although it’s easy enough for me to succumb to the emotional pull of "circling the wagons." My adolescence during World War Two was a mish-mash of romantic feelings as my hormones responded to a brave new world full of sex and battles. Even today, the feet in my head respond to martial music. Still, the deepest part of me, the part I am struggling to know better, the part that I believe is my real salvation, recognizes that connection knows no borders, no flag, no particular group even. There is no "us" without a "them," and there is, in the larger sense, no "them."
No wonder I’m lonely. The part of me that wants family, close friends, and intimacy reminds me every day of what I lack. It’s like that need to eat, even when I know I’ve had enough. That love affair with chocolate that’s so hard to resist. That tug in my gut when I see the swirl of long hair or the accidental, momentary meeting of eyes. Or the urge to belong. It’s not that I don’t have these things. I have more than enough to eat. I indulge myself with luxuries. I am cherished, without a doubt.
If my hunger isn’t really for these things, then, what is it? If "belonging" is really just the surface, what is beneath it, hidden from me, that I long for? Am I just another Citizen Kane, looking at a snow-filled ball of glass and murmuring, "Rosebud?"
I remember a time in my early childhood, one of those random moments that find a niche in one’s memory for no particular reason. I was with one or two other children, examining the heavy wires running down the side of a house and disappearing inside. We knew enough to avoid touching the wires themselves, but somehow I was drawn to the white, cylindrical insulators that held the wires to the building. I said that they looked like something I knew, something to eat, that I couldn’t identify. Another child suggested "potato." No, not potato.
That’s all there is to the memory. Years later, recalling that moment and my question, I answered easily, "marshmallow." At the time, evidently, I had had only a single experience with the soft, sweet confection. I remembered only the appearance and the pleasure. I knew it was something wonderful, but I couldn’t identify it.
That’s what this feels like. I’ve glimpsed something, just a few times, actually, that is outside my semantic universe. Once or twice, when I’ve been alone, I’ve suddenly and briefly "known" something very important. Where I fit. What I am. And then, just as quickly, it has been gone, leaving a memory as amorphous as a dream. And a number of occasions, in quiet moments among other people, usually after times of excruciating intensity in the group, I’ve felt something similar. A sense of well-being, of intimate connection, a rightness beyond anything I could put words to.
There’s no way this sensing can fit into a war. Like most people, I’m good at distancing myself from people and situations that are difficult to handle. I turn my back on other people’s suffering when I don’t know what to do about it. I clutch my comforts around me and avert my head and my heart.
James Baldwin, the writer of The Fire Next Time once told an interviewer, early in the civil rights struggle, "Liberals feel guilty—instead of . . ." It struck home for me then, and it still does.
Maybe I’m haunted, not by my glimpse of some utopian dream of community where we will all know true intimacy and trust and connection, but by my own inability to abandon my defenses and be what I dream of having.
Donald Skiff, September 28, 2001

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