I remember that moment when I first discovered that everyone else’s family wasn’t like mine. The revelation that my experience of life wasn’t even close to anyone else’s around me was a big one. Yet, there I was, continually tasked with relating to the people.
I grew up in a curious scenario. I’m the only child of Lebanese immigrants. My parents left their homeland on account of the civil war that began in the mid 1970s. I, myself, was born in Canada. As I grew up, I remember realizing that the context of my home – the culture, expectations, language, and beliefs – were different from the outside world. Even when compared to others who had come from Canada (where I was born), or Lebanon (where my parents were from), we were different.
Starting to tap dance at age 3 ½ and eventually pursuing the craft more seriously throughout my life only amplified this feeling of otherness. I would experience things in my dancing (both in practice and performance) that were difficult to describe to others. Combine my artistic pursuits with my inclination towards math, science, and systems thinking, and I become even more of an oddball. Not to mention the short stint I made in musical theatre. Each pursuit brought with it an entire community of people. Each community had a different way of thinking, a multitude of personalities attempting to navigate that way of thinking, and expectations for each member of the community.
And there I was in the middle of it all. Bouncing from one community to another. I was taking AP Calculus in High School during the day, and hitting the weekly tap jam at night. In college, I did math problems for fun, while attending the School of Visual Arts. Throughout most of my life I’ve had a constant feeling that regardless what group I found myself in (and there were many), I was just different enough to feel like a potential outcast. And I had been cast out once. That memory, which I recount in this documentary film, still haunts me.
My own personality didn’t really help this scenario. I was, and still am, quite the sensitive type. With that, any kind of difference, let alone separation on account of it, was amplified in my mind.
Separation and difference are connected for me. Closeness and distance, even of the emotional kind, is a tactile sensation for me. My sense of feeling different can quickly lead me toward thinking and feeling alone. This kind of aloneness is not the healthy kind of solitude that allows for reflection and rest, but the feeling of isolation – that there is no one with whom I can share my life. That there is no one that could or would want to engage in it with me. That there is no one that I can trust to connect with. That kind of aloneness is extremely challenging and can be leveraged as a kind of social pressure to conform to a particular community’s way of life. Don’t want to be alone? Begin to live like us. Don’t want to live like we expect you to? Then we will retreat from you and leave you alone.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I don’t think there is a way of life in which we can avoid the encountering of difference. There is such a variety of people and personalities that difference will be with us for life both in the seen and unseen world. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, there must be something bigger, that undergirds our relationships, even our approach to relating, so that our differences do not overpower our innate interconnectedness, and the opportunity for love to fuel how we relate.
I think the experience of feeling different is normal. We all may have experiences in which we feel just different enough from those around us that we can’t really connect. Even that we can’t, or never will fit in, no matter how hard we may try. But these feelings don’t have to lead to the experience of being an outcast or alone. Deeper still, those who we connect with, shouldn’t have to only be people who have experienced a similar life. Of course, similarity helps, but curating a community only through similarity is a form of tribalism. Such curation only amplifies the differences (and distances) between us and others rather than closing the distance.
A quick aside:
When I was young, I remember a few Sundays in which my parents and I went to visit churches. We had moved around a bit and were looking for a community in which we could share with others in a common approach to life. Upon entering one church, the greeters asked where we were from. When they learned that my family was from Lebanon, they were excited, exclaiming that they had a large contingent of Arab members. They ushered us so that we would sit with them. Another church separated us by gender and age. Men in one area, women in another, and kids yet another.
We didn’t stay long with either community. I’m sure they had the best of intentions, but such categorizations didn’t sit well with us. If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ll know I have thing with labels.
Okay, we’re back:
There is a lot that can be said about relationships, and many people have written good things about this topic. My own thinking has centered around a few key ideas.
Everything happens in the context of relationship. We relate to ourselves. We relate to others and our environment. We relate to our conception of reality. We are relational beings, who to varying degrees are conscious of our relational context. We can become needy of relationships or overwhelmed by them. The idea that we respond to life is a function of our relational context.
Every relationship is mediated. There is a space that sits in between our persons and whatever we are relating to. That space is filled with ideas about what we think is real, the life we are trying to pursue, and the person we would like to be and become. This space exists even when we are relating to ourselves. What exists in that space shapes our relationships. For example, experiencing challenges with learning can form the idea, “I’m not a very smart person.” That brings with it a series of ideas that begin to fill the space between our own thinking and our self. We begin to see ourselves as not very smart. If the idea takes hold, our relationship with learning will be shaped by this idea. We may curate our own dreams and opportunities based on it. We will adjust our language. The idea itself may not be true. However, because we believe it to be true, we act as if it were true, and it fulfills itself to be true.
Here it is important to mention that ideas are malleable. We have the possibility to change what fills the space between us and what we relate to. We can change what mediates our relationships. Shifts in the way our relationships are mediated can lead to powerful transformations.
Even deeper, we can begin to explore the ideas that mediate our relationships and share them with others. We can experiment and compare notes. Our world is filled with different kinds of people all having different ideas about life. If we want to grow together, we can begin by sharing what mediates our relationships. Instead of battling over what should be done, we can share why we think a particular action is important. Really and personally. Why is it important enough to share (with force or even imposition), and so much so that you are willing to adjust your own life to fulfill it. If we ever met in person, I would be curious to know.
Answering these kinds of questions for ourselves unveils part of our heart – the seat of our will. Sharing our “why” with others opens the door to our inner world with one another – what motivates us – and helps us know how we can support each other on our respective journeys. We can more clearly be together, work together, and grow together.
Instead of amplifying our differences, what if we began by acknowledging, unveiling, and sharing what fills the space between us? There might be a lot of wonder there.