Friday, August 26, 2005

The Stranger

Strangers play important roles in our life. Sometimes they are a threat. Sometimes they provide a missing part of a puzzle we're working on. And, sometimes they become long term friends.

People who study mythology and psychology have indicated that the core of our mixed feelings about the stranger goes back to early conceptions of god. God is the ultimate stranger, the ultimate other. God's power is so immense that we must be separate from it. Is that power a threat? Will that power provide a boon? Or will I travel through life hand in hand with that power?

Tribal societies taught their children to view strangers as threats. We still do the same thing with our children. Wild rumors and myths inflame our fear of strangers, like the myth about poisoned candy at Halloween (it never happened). Nations and societies treat the other as threats and turn them into enemies. It seems our world is full of that right now.

The movie Virgin Spring had an immense impact on me as a young person. Ingmar Bergman was a master of creating lasting images, in this case of fear. In this movie, a young woman is raped and murdered by strangers who were befriended by the girl's father. In a fit of rage, he tracks them down and kills them, fighting all three at once in hand to hand combat. These kind of moral tales fill our history and exist into our present.

In the hero's journey, strangers provide the first two roles. Sometimes they are enemies to be vanquished and sometimes they are there to provide a boon - a clue, information, a linkage to someone else, a key, a magic elixir, a tool, a weapon, etc. The involvement may be very brief, or the stranger may travel with you for awhile on your quest until it becomes time for them to continue or their quest, or leave you to go your way alone. You must encounter the stranger to complete your journey.

Many of the Western movies are based on this concept. Consider The Lone Ranger, Shane and many of the Clint Eastwood movies. In "Just Plain Shane", William McIntosh wrote, "Mythic energy surrounds the stranger as a type; he might represent an entry into a higher level of consciousness, or the original state of man on earth, or the coming power of the future, or a possibility of unseen change."

Sometimes this brief meeting with a stranger is called synchronicity. In reality the opportunity for the benefit (or threat) of a stranger is always there for us, if we are on a quest and we are open to what the world is providing to us.

In a few rare cases the stranger becomes a long time friend, maybe even a lifelong friend.

Some societies consider the youth of their society strangers. In way they are. They do not know the customs, the rituals, the ways. The young stranger goes through an initiation into the society, sometimes even with sexual union being part of the process. At the fundamental level, young stranger represents new blood into the society and their initiation may end with the process of creating new life. Also, the young represent new ideas, new ways, that will be integrated in the tribe.

Nouk Bassomb, an African storyteller and student of Central African cultures reported in "The God with Two Faces", quoting an elder's response about the stranger, "when people await a cat, the stranger manifests himself as a lion, and when the village prepares for the lion, here comes a cat, or a hyena, laughing in the night." "A god, the stranger is the spirit of the world in motion," he wrote.

Mark Nepo in the "Bridge of Well-Being" wrote, "One of the great paradoxes of being is that each of us is born complete and yet we need contact with life in order to be whole. This, then, is the purpose of the stranger; to enliven what is dormant within us. It is our responsibility to maintain that newly awakened consciousness, and to integrate the fibers of hard-earned expereince into the fabric of a living spirit.

The word stranger denotes a living embodiment of that which is strange - from the Old French, estrange, extraordinary. Thus the stranger functions as an unexpected messenger who can embody or mirror what is extraordinary within us, what is possible but yet unlived."

In the "Stranger as a Pathfinder", Elaine Jahner writes that societies prove "...their continuing vigilance over processes that contemporary psychologists recognize as anxiety arising from our response to the uncanny, an anxiety all too easily projected onto the figure of the stranger or foreigner. In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva analyzes this experience from a psychoanalytic and historical perspective. She advances her belief that we need a cosmopolitanism, which recognizes that our encounters with strangers are always bound up with how we encounter evidence from our own unconscious.

'Neither the apocalypse on the move nor the instant adversary to be eliminated for the sake of appeasing the group, [the stranger or foreigner] lives within us; he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself.'

She engages in historical analysis to show how different societies have taught people to understand what a stranger might signify. The contemporary world, though requires that we become conscious of how we react in relation to the stranger and that we unlearn some old habits; 'by recognizing our uncanny strangeness we shall neither suffer from it nor enjoy it from the outside.' Learning how to relate to the stranger and/or foreigner is the most pressing of our contemporary concerns."

Learning how to relate to the stranger and/or foreigner is the most pressing of our contemporary concerns. We now know that the contribution of strangers to collaborative groups is essential. We've known for years that the presence of the stranger takes creativity in new directions, as the ancient knew it did our generativity. An innovation commons must be safe so that strangers can welcomed without the threat of harm. And, we have to unlearn what we've been socialized to learn, to fear the stranger.

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