When the "Other" is here at home
I guess there are some lessons in life that we have to learn over and over. This election has shown me just how much I have to learn when it comes to turning “the Other into your brother.” That was the name of a TEDx talk I gave a few weeks ago. I shared the intense personal transformation I had experienced in Iraq from 2003-2005—when I went from seeing Iraqis as “the enemy” as a counterinsurgency analyst in the war zones of al Anbar province to seeing them as friends—working together to build the country and forging close, lasting relationships with the country’s top leadership and political parties.How I got from “Other” to brother was sparked by a single moment by the Euphrates river when I experienced its peace and beauty and realized it flowed right in the midst even of the war zone of Fallujah, where I had just been—an unstoppable force no bombs and mortars could impede. The choice was clear to me in that moment: do I choose the way of life and peace or the way of death and destruction?I chose the river and from that moment stopped fighting Iraqis and started working with them.I am trying with all my heart to bring this lesson home and live it when it hits me deeper, pains me more. When the “Other” is literally my brother, my father, my in-laws, close friends. More and more, I notice that we are seeing leaders and members of another political party as the “Other”. And while outwardly we may not have resorted to bombs and violence, there is violence and hatred in our thoughts against them.I wonder how I can justify railing against a now-President elect for the way he “Others” people and sows hatred and division. If I hate him and separate myself from the people who support him, I am expressing hatred and division. I am treating them all as Others. I am creating conflict and war.This is hard and it’s personal. A member of my immediate family’s first reaction to the election results was, “The best next step is…lock her up!” I was stunned and struggling to process that kind of vindictiveness and self-righteousness.Our Muslim exchange student has been depressed, with little appetite and unable to focus on school work the past two days. He fears being sent home. He fears an attack at his high school, where his friend of Mexican origin was one of five ethnically diverse students served fake deportation notices by a fellow student and told, “You’re going back to Mexico.” He worries that he’s next. And he doesn’t understand how the country that he and the world reveres has just elected a man who in his words, “hates Mexicans, Muslims, and women,” which he fears gives license for all other Americans to do the same.I told him tonight that when I travel to the Middle East, there’s always the specter of a possibility of an attack against me—as a foreigner, American, and woman. Many people are too scared to even travel to the region because of this threat—though extremely remote and unlikely. But I choose to focus on the way nearly everyone treats me—with love, kindness, hospitality, and generosity. There will always be extremists out there, but we can’t live our life based on their hatred. I told him to focus on the way he has actually been treated by Americans—how his students and teachers have respected him, loved him, gone out of their way for him time and again. That is the America I know we are.As latent racism, sexism and hatred bubbles to the surface or is emboldened by recent events, it demands even more of us—to stop being complacent, to increase our vigilance and care for our neighbor, and most importantly, to not “Other” people who we condemn for “Othering.”One thing that has helped me do this in the case of even close family members is a friend sharing that any time we experience disconnection—from others, ourselves, or even the planet, we suffer. We may not be conscious of it, but we are suffering deep down. It helped me to find that compassion within myself when I thought that the reason behind someone being hateful, prejudiced, or vindictive, could be that they are disconnected and suffering at some level. I can also let go of judgment when I examine myself and see that there are many parts of me which are disconnected and that are suffering. I can have compassion for myself, too, in that same way.The other thing that is helping me is conversations with other non-profit leaders and friends who have all expressed an increased commitment to heal what is ailing in our society, to reach out and listen with an intent to understand the “Other”, to build bridges, to create a world that is just, equitable, sustainable, and free for all. That is energizing, exciting, and invigorating.Once again, I will choose the river. Which will you choose?