When I am invited to attend Muslim salaat (one of the five daily prayer sessions) I sit in the back with the other women. I comply with gender customs as a guest. I cover my hair under hijab without hesitation, and I do not raise my voice in song. Strangely enough, considering my personality, I do not have any problem with this.
When I go to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue I must sit on the other side of the mechitza amongst other women. The Orthodox Jewish context is where my spirit starts to rail. As a progressive Jewish feminist, I am accustomed to an egalitarian synagogue setting. I want to sit where I can see the bimah, the Aron Kodesh, the ner tamid, the Torah scroll, even the yad. I want to hear the opening lines of the Amidah and the Shema in stereo surround sound, women’s and men’s voices mingling together all around me. The physical marginalization behind the mechitza is psychically impacting for me in a Jewish context, but not, curiously enough, in a Muslim context.
Why is it easier to accept what is different when it is entirely other? Why does my critical engagement ignite when I am in a familiar context? Let’s bring the question really close to home. Why are we polite and patient with co-workers, customers and neighbors, but when we get home we are grumpy, angry and critical with family members? What is it about familiarity that brings out the worst side of honesty? I can take a positive tact and reason that the familiarity, the deep understanding and identification forged through similarity, is a conduit for self-understanding and intimacy. If I am less guarded and more vulnerable I have an opportunity to gain deeper acquaintance with my own weaknesses, reactions, triggers and volatility. On the other hand, if I am less skilled in observing and regulating my own emotional life and reactionary tendencies, the triggers that come from human intimacy can quickly become destructive.
When I meet someone new I am generally pretty open to who they are. I am patient, polite, inquisitive and understanding. If there is something about them that offends my personal politics I will generally withdraw my inquiries about that subject so as not to provoke conflict. Oh, you love Jerry Falwell? You voted for W. twice? You think Sarah Palin is a fearless feminist, a soulful prophetic genius? Ah. Well then. What do you think about this weather we are having? I don’t fight them. I don’t see the point.
However—if my loved one says something I disagree with, something that irritates me, something that unleashes a flood of emotion, then WHAM! The big guns come out. The engagement is sometimes constructive and mutually illuminating. Sometimes it is, shall we say, more heated. With someone I love and know deeply, with someone who knows me deeply—or with someone who shares a portion of my identity assemblage (liberal Jewish with a Western Buddhist practice, progressive, adamantly pro-LGBT, vehemently supportive of reproductive rights and gender equality)—I am much more likely to remove my veil of politeness and dig into the meat of values and ethics. I am more honest, yes. And sometimes, I admit, I am less kind. I am definitely less patient.
If I apply this scenario to global travel, I see the same phenomenon. It is so easy to criticize my own country. I can talk all day about how disappointing and embarrassing America can be. In a previous post I explored how difficult it is for me think of what is great about America. But ask me about Italy. Oh, Italy! The fresh food, the expressive and vibrant people, the flora, the ancient structures that humble visitors with the hugeness of history. Oh, Italy, and its sensual idiosyncrasies: the Vatican and the Tiber, the spires and crucifixes, the cathedral bells and roasting chestnuts, the deadly Vespas and the Egyptian obelisks, the cigarette smoke and purebred dogs, the prostrate homeless and the Swiss guards. But the more time I spend in Italy, I learn about government corruption, Vatican politicking, dwindling social resources, crippled public education.
As I grow more familiar with Italy, am I becoming critical? Perhaps a bit? Did I catch myself suggesting solutions for tampering the violence that Berlusconi’s prime ministry conducts against women? Maybe I did. Just maybe.
If I apply this scenario to interreligious dialogue, I see Christians tiptoeing with exacting, terrified care around Jews. They accommodate grave pains so as not to be offensive. But a Protestant will make a pedophile joke about a Catholic any day. Christians may be scared of Muslims, but they often reserve their naked hatred for other Christians—for their own family.
If I apply this scenario to race relations, I see white people apologizing constantly for being white when in conversation with black communities; but I hear black youths calling each other “nigger” with impunity.
Behavior shifts dramatically according to the familiarity of one’s surroundings. Why, I wonder, does the behavior in supposedly “safer,” more “familiar” surroundings, seem more destructive? Or is it not destructive—is it actually more honest?
More honesty is available in intimate and familiar contexts because the imperative of politeness is expired. And that is why, of course, more kindness is necessary. Kindness becomes harder in intimacy because the ragged, imperfect edges of human personality become starker and more threatening; and kindness is crucial in intimacy because has the potential to affirm the raw, authentic kernel of each of us that we might only show, even fleetingly, to our loved ones. As Robin Williams’ character said about his wife in Good Will Hunting, “That’s the good stuff.” Sometimes people call a brutal delivery of unfair opinions “honesty.” But that’s just the wolf of emotional weaponry in sheep’s clothing. The kind of honesty we need, the kind of honesty that opens doors instead of slamming them shut and caulking them with defensive goo, must be tempered with exacting kindness.
Why is it so much easier to be critical, impatient, corrective, prescriptive, and even cruel to those with whom we share the most, those whom we (supposedly/should/try to) love the most? Is it because we take them for granted? Is it because we are safer to question and fight because a commitment binds us together? Is there a tacit agreement between loved ones to keep each other honest? Are we really criticizing ourselves when we criticize those most like us? Is it because we know them better and see their peccadilloes and imperfections, whereas with strangers the interface is from one ordered veneer to another ordered veneer, and less “truth” is present? Is the difficulty of feeling compassion and kindness for family members rooted in the difficulty of feeling it for our own selves? I have found, through the merciful process of growing up, that improving my relationship with myself and with my own life has immensely improved and enlightened my friendships and intimate connections. How did this merciful growing-up process start? You got it: with mercy toward myself.
For those of us who contemplate the complexities of interfaith dialogue, I think that the psychodynamics of similarity and difference can greatly inform this process. Interfaith dialoguers must keep in mind that moments of stress and conflict do not always signal a failure of dialogue; in fact, they signal the initiation of intimacy. Conflict does not signal the end of a relationship. If it is channeled constructively, and tempered with patience and steadfastness, conflict deepens a relationship. It is the beginning of real relationship, because the hard real is always better than the false good.
As interfaith workers continue making progress along the long arc of justice, as conflict arises it is best met with kindness, acceptance and clear-eyed courage. We are all other to each other, even those of us engaged intimately, whether we occupy opposite sides of the masjid, mechitza, railroad tracks or dinner table. The great thing about accepting all of these levels of ambiguity—social, interreligious, intersubjective, interracial, and so on—is that we can expect the unexpected, anticipate the ambiguous, learn the unfamiliar, and affirm the fleetingly revealed, sacred aspects of the seemingly familiar.
That’s the good stuff.