This week’s blog topic asks us to look at the ‘others’ in our community. Naturally, when we think about others we tend to image those who are physically different than us. Those who look different or speak differently. This gut instinct makes it difficult to reflect on the others in my community. Not because I am some holier-than-thou post-racial person, but because my community, for the most part, looks just like me. I live in a very small community surrounded by mostly rural farm land. Most of my free time is spent with my wife and family who also look and sound just like me. This is not the result of some type of xenophobic creation, it is just simply how the cards fell, and it was not always the case.
It seems like a lifetime ago, as I reflect on my time in the Marine Corps. I was an 18 year old kid from central Pennsylvania, the same central Pennsylvania where I live now, the one described above. I still remember the first day of boot camp. I was surrounded, for the first time in my life, by people who did not look or sound like me. African Americans, Latino Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Asian Americans. Of course we all spoke English, but some spoke with thick accents and added in slang and foreign words I had never heard before. I can say with full confidence that my sheltered life in central Pennsylvania did not prepare me for this moment. I remember being overwhelmed with a feeling of being different myself, a strange feeling of not belonging. Over the next few weeks we all learned that life sucks equally for everyone when you spend most of your days face down in the mud, eating very little, and sleeping even less. It sounds cliche but I honestly learned in those few months of boot camp that we are not defined by who we are on the outside, but by who we are on the inside. After thirteen grueling weeks we graduated, we became U.S. Marines and suddenly that was all that mattered. Over the next four years my realization that we are defined by who we are inside and not by how we look was solidified as I traveled to hell and back with men I never would have known in central Pennsylvania.
However, as I reflect on defining people by who they are on the inside, I become aware of how I continue to see ‘others’ in my life. I still put people in groups, but instead of grouping by looks, I group them by experiences. For me, it is difficult being a twenty-nine year old student with peers who are, in some cases, more than a decade younger. While they may look and sound like me, they have vastly different experiences and I have a terrible habit of defining some as an ‘other’. Or, as I look at my friends from high school, I assume they could never understand who I am because our once similar lives took very different paths. This may seem innocent enough, right? It is not tainted by the fear or anger associated with racism or xenophobia. Not true. In fact, it is just as dangerous. While I may look down on those who classify by color, speech, or genealogy, I don’t realize that judging by experiences begets the same effect. I am limiting someone’s possibility for no fault of their own. Even worse, I am immediately assuming that they can not understand me, nor I them.
This is the core of our class discussions of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. When we refuse to see the world through the eyes of another, we instantly shut ourselves off from a world of discovery, understanding, and advancement. I challenge everyone to revisit the way they define the ‘others’. Maybe it is the older couple at the end of our street who keeps to themselves, maybe it is the younger classmate who seems naive, or the old friend who chose a different path. While many in my life may look and sound the same, I must be aware of the other ways I group people. As I begin to understand what makes people ‘others’ to me, I can learn to move past that and into a world of new relationships.