The Challenge of Otherness: Bridging the Chasms of a Complex World
by Robert Mayerovitch
Fellow Humans: Let me be more specific and categorical: Graduates & Students; Faculty, Staff, & Administration; Family & Friends; Curiosity-Seekers, Thrill-Seekers, & Those Who Accidentally-Stumbled Upon the Place While Looking for a Bathroom; Orange People & Purple People; Believers & Unbelievers; Fence Sitters, Fencers… and others,
Years ago my younger daughter (who actually does fence) was asked why her father didn’t go to church. Her reply was simple: “He’s a Canadian.”
I’ve often delighted in that memory. Partly it’s because the explanation seems like a slightly bizarre misinterpretation of one of the many labels that I, like you, bear through life. We change some on occasion, and wear others either hidden in an inside pocket or emblazoned on our foreheads throughout our days. But part of my delight in my daughter’s statement is in realizing that although she didn’t choose the relevant category, she was acutely aware that there were differences about me, descriptors that set me apart from other people’s fathers. She recognized that my separateness was marked most obviously by those two distinctions, that I didn’t go to church, and that I was an alien (something my family, colleagues, and students, have long attested to, especially when I lay claim to my Martian heritage). For Jessie, my otherness was a simple fact of life, without prejudice, without inherent value, just a fact.
Being a Canadian has long delighted me for that very reason: not because that’s better than being American, or worse, but rather because in my slightly different upbringing in a non-world power with a self-deprecating national identity and a tendency to send comic actors south of the border, I’ve shared in a deeply philosophical perspective well represented by the immortal words and music of Gilbert & Sullivan: “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.” Despite the current American concerns about terrorists and excessive immigration, my political minority status is seen as relatively non-threatening, and perhaps, as manifested in my different pronunciation of “house” and “about,” even kind of cute.
It’s that easy acceptance that makes a Martian like me feel at home here. But it’s in my other significant minority status that my otherness is really put to the test. I must admit that my bearded jaw dropped rather below its normal limit when Mark Collier called me to indicate that John Gordon and he had agreed to invite me to speak today. My incredulity (not a bad word in talking about issues of faith) results from my being, as my daughter tried to represent, an unbeliever. This is not the usual credential for representing that aspect of your journey beyond Baldwin Wallace University that is rooted in the spiritual. But as Mark and I talked, I realized that in this invitation, Mark and John were acting out the very things that make me celebrate the spirituality of life even without a religion or a conscious god. It’s what makes me regularly accept and even celebrate the inclusiveness that we at Baldwin Wallace try to make a part of the very life blood of our culture. And it’s this challenge of finding shared sensibilities and values in others, even to the deepest core of our beliefs, that is an imperative in this often cold and confusing world. I’m both humbled and energized by this opportunity, and hope to be able to assuage most of your concerns about radical Canadianism.
I know few people, believers and unbelievers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, secular humanists (that’s another term for atheists who can carry a tune), and representatives of the various isms, who can’t be moved by the intense beauty and overwhelming immensity of a starry night sky or a crimson sunset or the pores of a flower. Nor can most people remain untouched by the sheer amazingness of a newborn baby. Looking out from our world, or looking deep within it, we can’t help but be awed by that which we can’t comprehend. We can try mightily, and we do, all our lives, all of us, to understand the infinities and the eternities we confront in our imaginations and our awareness, but what we all find the most amazing is the sheer mystery of it all.
I was raised in a secular Jewish household, which is to say that we felt a deep cultural identification with our forebears, including some of their ritual celebrations, without having any sense of the godliness of creation. That meant learning to deal with important concepts like life and death and war and love and what came before and what comes after and why this and why that and it’s not fair, all this without the inclusion of a god to help provide answers. But as I grew, I started to realize that although most people try to make some sense of the mysteries of life, it is the very continuity of that mystery that binds us together. And it is in our unwillingness to surrender to it that we stay apart in our otherness.
Of course we need the power and support of certain shared beliefs, but we must not let that need crowd out our curiosity. Where uncertainty challenges and can weaken our resolve and mitigate our joy in life, provided answers at least let us feel a togetherness in our separateness, just like an expatriate Canadian can find company in another, or in the self-help club for people like me who pun too much.
What I hope for – especially for those of you leaving the relative comfort of your college lives to confront the uncertainties of life out there, beyond even that curiously self-important intersection right outside these doors, at Front & Center – is that you will consider it important to find a way of encompassing, and perhaps even embracing the different-ness in others, even to the extent of seeing how similar that different-ness is to yours.
Here’s part of life’s process as I understand it, and I’ve been helped in that understanding by pondering life’s challenges with my wife, Laura, who is a practicing Catholic, and my older daughter, Katie, who is a Baha’i. My wife has defined her faith as a gift, a sort of hard-wired way of accepting the mysteries of life through a relationship with God. My daughter indicates that Baha’is believe that various messengers have throughout time, delivered truths about God to various peoples in various, socially distinct ways, thus making it easier for the message to get through. But no one I know with faith in God has never had that faith challenged. It wouldn’t be faith without those challenges. And perhaps it is reinforced when the result is the transcendence of doubt in favor of renewed faith. For one such as me, as for my secular siblings, the doubt is my reality, the need to accept the answerless questions of ultimate importance.
The only way I can do this is by celebrating the mystery itself as the consummate beauty of life. And the only way that I can do this in the company of others is to look to include everyone else in my embrace. There can be no real debate when it comes to the life of the spirit. What moves you and overwhelms you is a part of your very being, and it defines your values, your judgments, your yearnings every day. Yet I feel we must do better than feel empowered and focused and supported by those around us who are like us and believe exactly or approximately like us. The world is full of people who look and act differently from you. But it’s also full of people who look and act just like you, but who each has a personal journey through life, one that may approximate in words and deeds how you live yours, but that may never be the same. People misrepresent themselves in communities of like values in order to fit in. And the flip side is just as interesting, since people with completely different superficial spiritual qualities can be very similar to you in their essential being.
Some religious scholars have pondered the weird reality that on the mystical fringes of many of the world’s great religions, the expression of spiritual ardor is often more similar regardless of the label, than it is to the mainstream proponents of that religion. That should give us pause, a chance to hold our comfortable separateness at bay long enough to consider the possibility that in our heart of hearts, we are more similar than we are different.
My coping method is fairly simple. I know with absolute certainty that I am uncertain. I also know with reasonable certainty that so is everyone else. A vehement profession of my unfaith offers me neither intellectual satisfaction nor any clarity in dealing with mystery. On the other hand, a vehement profession of faith untempered by doubt seems suspect, the way we suspect the unwavering resolve of extremists who can never stop delivering their message and never seem to hear us. It is the doubt, our emotional vulnerability, that humanizes us, that allows us to share our frailty with all other persons on earth.
So I look for synonyms and metaphors and parallels and analogies. In others’ faith I look for how all of us are deserving of love and respect, of curiosity about what makes us tick. All of us have the capability not just to teach others about our world and our way. More particularly, we have the capability of learning from others, without prejudice, without belittling them in our heads while we seem to be reaching out, and without assuming a superiority because of our strength in numbers, whether it be our religion or our race or our college degree.
To do this we need to identify shared values that transcend sectarian divisions. If we really find the ability to celebrate life’s joys, we need to start off with some basic qualities. I’ve found two that particularly speak to me:
We need humility, that quality that allows us to strive for the best, to realize that we can strive to offer our best, without ever resorting to a false sense of self-importance. We have to try to be righteous without being self-righteous, and we have to try to keep our hearts and minds open, even as we share with others our deepest felt beliefs. One thing that has made our graduating President an effective leader has been his humility. He has always known he can’t do it alone, and so he reaches out to others, empowering them as he goes.
We also need curiosity. If you have all the answers fresh out of college, you’re doomed. The first day out of class, there will be a challenge that definitely wasn’t solved and may never even have been noted. The variability of what confronts you need not overwhelm and depress you. Rather, it is a part of life’s journey, and perhaps our prime energy source. At the same time, curiosity doesn’t negate what you know and treasure; instead it offers the promise of even more: more richness, more depth and breadth, more opportunities to be amazed and troubled and challenged and stimulated and ultimately uplifted by what you find. So must your spiritual journey allow for continual expansion and refinement, even as a work of art can evolve, both in the act of creation and in the acts of interpretation and appreciation.
I know that there are some non-students here today (including me) who have never been to one of these baccalaureate services. You may have read President Collier’s announcement and decided that the combination of me and a religious service must be some kind of really aberrant experiment. But as a teacher to my core, I believe that this is just another opportunity to build bridges, to span the great divide that normally separates the God-fearing righteous from the pitiable infidels, or the realists from the superstitious, or better yet, to help us notice how much we share. As Shakespeare so wisely put it, in the mouth of the much put upon Jew, Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice, “If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you tickle me, do I not laugh?”
I think it unfortunate, tragically unfortunate, that the world’s great beliefs and philosophies have as yet done such a poor job of empathizing with other faiths and beliefs in order to recognize identities and similarities rather than reinforcing schisms and elitism. It is in the hope of better things for you and yours that I challenge us all to look both within our hearts and outside our comfortable groups to the dangerous but ultimately much richer world that surrounds us.
I hope that regardless of your chosen profession, you will all think of yourselves as teachers, teachers to yourselves and others, teachers who can find in the daily challenges of your lives some opportunity for learning, for questioning, for wondering. It is one of my great joys that I’ve managed to find within my professional life, daily ways of adding to my own spiritual growth and sharing in the growth of my students and colleagues. I’m pretty conscious of the fact that I would find my job much less rewarding if I didn’t strive to address aspects of physical, mental, and spiritual health on a continual basis.
Here are two examples from the world of piano teaching. I’ve found that some of my experience can be catalogued and shared as a series of maxims. I call them “Rules of Pianists’ Thumbs” because the pun sticks in the mind and because “Robert’s Rules” was already used and I didn’t want to plagiarize.
The first saying could be considered a theme for this whole talk: “Understanding begins where two truths collide.” That’s a principle I use in playing and teaching the piano, because a piece will often confront the musician with choices that seem mutually exclusive, and yet that can each be fully justified. That’s what we regularly have to do in life, no matter what our religious tradition. We lie to protect our loved ones. We learn things like “Thou shalt not kill” and then have to add the disclaimer that self-defense is a mitigating factor. We learn that context helps determine truth and that different expressions of truth can be misleading if we aren’t willing to explore the infinite nuances of language and meaning and thought and therefore belief.
Here’s another: “Hope is a four-letter word.” In English terms, that’s of course literally correct. In spiritual terms it may seem like the denial of the possibility of good results, whether graduating on time (something parents fervently hope for), landing a cushy job, or the potentially biggest payoff, life eternal. But when hope is used as a substitute for personal responsibility, as when you hope your final exam will go well even though you never opened the book, then it is indeed a dirty word.
These guiding principles work for me, in my own playing, in my teaching, and in my thinking about life’s other challenges, because they remind me both that we must define honestly and clearly what we should be responsible for and then know when to accept that we are not in control, not even in control of fully knowing who or what might be in control. Our imaginations, our creativity, our deepest emotional needs may try to answer those questions, but ultimately the best we can do is embrace the sweetness of the mystery.
Empathy requires that you have a creative ability to translate how others are feeling, acting, and speaking, so that the initial foreignness of their perspective can be transformed into something that you can not only understand, but accept as a valid possibility. When I was about 18, I had a friend with whom I engaged in many lively discussions about religion and spirituality and belief. She informed me that I was a good Christian, I just didn’t know it. I laughed, because the sentiment was both far-fetched and believable at the same time. No, my beliefs wouldn’t pass muster in the court of orthodoxy, Christian or otherwise, but we were able to feel a synonymous nature about our values that seemed to transcend the distinct differences of our stated beliefs. God or no God, we somehow recognized that our respective otherness was insufficient grounds to consider each other as anything but worthy people.
For similar reasons, I regularly read the religion pages in The Plain Dealer, something that amuses my wife greatly. I’m not looking for help, I’m looking for richness, the richness of the varied ways humans cope with our condition. Last week, totally by accident, two columns included perspectives that fit right into the essence of this talk. A column by Jean Dubail, Plain Dealer Metro Editor, reviewed a book called “The Great Transformation” by Karen Armstrong. She’s an ex-nun and a religious historian, and according to Dubail, the title refers to the years between 900 and 200 BC or BCE, when monotheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and philosophical rationalism were all developing. One shared characteristic of all these developing ethical and belief systems was the so-called “Abandonment of selfishness” and “the spirituality of compassion” both of which led to various forms of the Golden Rule. Days before reading this review, I had asked John Gordon to include some reference to the Golden Rule as an example of deeply shared spiritual values. I was delighted to hear that he already has in the Chapel a poster with many versions showing the universality of that rule.
In the same paper was an article by Terry Mattingly of the Scripps Howard News Service all about Salman Rushdie, the Booker Prize winner for his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” and the resultant target of a death edict or fatwah from the Ayotollah of Iran. From this article come several Rushdie quotes. He’s a self-described “dreadful old atheist,” one who celebrated and tested his loss of Islamic faith by eating a ham sandwich. But his musing that “skeptics must remain open to the possibility that the believers may, in some mysterious way, be right” spoke directly to my theme today. We are all uncertain and equals in that uncertainty, though we may profess a certainty more insistently than another.
To conclude (and I know it’s a part of the speech listening experience that even the unbelievers get to say “Thank God!” when this signal comes along) I have two life-affirming experiences to share with you that celebrate the mutuality of spirituality both religious and non-religious:
Years ago I was a graduate student at the Indiana University School of Music. In spite of my usual classical music bias, I was attracted to an ad for a group called “The Music Masters,” which consisted of perhaps five or six gospel music ministers. I went out of curiosity and because I love good gospel music, not for its deistic nature, but rather for its celebratory and heartfelt expression. The evening’s stated message was that God is Real, and the group proclaimed it with an earnestness and an involvement that would have made me believe the moon is made of Roquefort Cheese. That message did not convert me. Rather it reminded me of the achingly beautiful and different ways we can celebrate both the joys of life and our yearnings to transcend its apparent limitations. That experience left me both exuberant and changed.
And burned into my memory is one of the most powerful emotional and spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. My heart fills when I recall a horrible and beautiful event in my past, twenty-five years ago. My wife at the time and I had just had a son, our firstborn. He was born in shock, without crying or moving, though alive and fighting for life. He lived for about thirty-six hours, and afterwards, with counsel from family and friends, we decided that we needed to hold a funeral service. With help from the BW Chaplain, Hank Knight, we crafted a service from favorite poems of friends, from a greeting that I wrote but had the Chaplain read, from reminiscences of my brother and from a poem written by my father. In the aching moments of that service, we all shared our bleeding hearts, none more openly and courageously than my father, who died two years ago. The poem he read through trembling voice went as follows:
To Our Grandson David
Born September 29, 1981
Died September 30, 1981
Did he die
Before he'd lived?
No - in his day
His single day
He lived a lifetime
Was cradled in a
Swaddled in a
Tossed up by a
Assaulted by a
But dreamed perhaps a
And passed on
To each of us
A silent legacy
His lifetime's wisdom
That all of us
In all our days
Might also learn
To live a lifetime
In each day.
A few of the people here today were in attendance at that service 25 years ago. And perhaps they shared with me the feeling I had at the time that in our shared love and sorrow we were the same. The terrible beauty of that moment will never leave me, nor the lessons of love in all its splendor and ache. We were all mourning and loving people that day, and I’m sure that the believers in the chapel felt the presence of God. And the unbelievers in the room, including myself, felt still that this is the way life must be lived, fully and unabashedly, even when pain seems immense. In the collective bearing of that pain and in the acceptance of mutual worth, we all transcended our differences, and I’m not sure we even noticed them.
It is in such challenging and pivotal moments in our lives that we discover the stuff of which we are made. We discover whether we insist on being life’s victims, or carry within us a nurturing and mutually affirming kind of energy, and even love. We discover whether we accept challenges as opportunities for growth or for retreat, and we determine whether we will let ourselves courageously explore the unknown or continue to retrench in favor of a safely and narrowly defined reality. Regardless of your choices, I hope that you will find full room in your hearts not merely for the bemused toleration of otherness, but rather for an encompassing empathy and celebration of that otherness. I hope, I fervently hope that you, the graduates, and we the not yet graduates can continue to find in our beliefs, all of them, a spirited and curiosity-filled exploration of life, an exploration that embraces the mystery of it all as a deeply abiding joy.