I’ve often felt an affinity for the marginalized. It comes from an early place in my life of feeling marginalized myself — powerless or less important or unable to assert my own needs, because they were less valuable than those of others. And so when I encounter or come to understand some way others are marginalized, I feel connected to that somehow. This is a tricky thing, to be an embodiment of many of the dominant paradigms of our culture (I’m white, I’m a male, I’m straight, I’m cis-gendered, I’m able-bodied and -minded, I’m well educated, I’m affluent) but to still feel some affinity for, participation in, even identity with those who are on the margins — nonwhite, women, gay, trans, disabled, affected by mental illness, uneducated, poor. I want to be modest about the implications of this affinity, but I also want to be true, to speak from the heart.
What does it mean, then, to feel an affinity for the marginalized? It means that the experience of one who is not like me, the other, one who is relatively disadvantaged as a result, still reveals to me some part of me I have forgotten, or lost awareness of. “There is no other, over there,” is what Roshi says. Otherness is an illusion — a convincing one, one we have to grapple with because we live in these bodies and only these bodies — but one we must transcend as we live in them, fully.
At the zendo, we were watching a preview for the film “Wretches and Jabberers,” about two autistic men with significant speech impediments who go on a world tour to engage others and communicate from their experience, to help people not living with this particular disability to understand it in a different way.
At one point, one of the subjects of the film, Larry Bissonette, is saying, “more like you than not,” challenging our own perceptions of what our lives are over and against what a life with autism is. Larry speaks slowly, one word at a time, his tone increasing with each word. This forces the listener to pay attention, to find the meaning in the most straightforward expressions — or to let the meaning be apparent, as it is.
As he moved through the sentence “more like you than not,” I could swear that what he was going to say was: “more like you than you.”
This was pretty astounding — even though he did not in fact say that, and it was a projection on my part, I think it struck at something true for my own experience, and that of others as well.
We can, if we are ablebodied and ableminded and not hindered by disability or some other non-normative situation in our physical and mental capacities, convince ourselves that we can do it all on our own. That our abledness is intrinsic, right, and proper. That it’s statistical normativeness is also an expression of some kind of naturalism — it is that most people are ablebodied, and so it ought to be the case that everyone be ablebodied. It’s right and just that I should be able-bodied and -minded. This can relegate those that are NOT ablebodied or minded to either a “wrongness” or a ” suffering aggrievedness”. Either they’re not right and deserving of separation, or they are forever suffering, deserving of our pity.
Stated as such that is obviously a load of crap, but it’s worth noting further that while very few people would consciously express such notions, and while our society would never endorse either view — functionally, both as individuals and as a society, we follow the path that that idea creates. We are unnerved confronting those with disabilities. We don’t want to look at their struggles. Or if we do, we approach them under the guise of charity, in a spirit of giving to the less fortunate. Societally, people who are not ablebodied or living with mental illness are functionally marginalized. Try to be in a wheelchair and access mass transit. Or go on a date.
Have you ever thought of those things and went “thank God I don’t have to do that?” I sure have, because it doesn’t look like fun. And it stops there, usually. But what if you live that way, and what is my response to you if you must live that way. I probably don’t want to look so closely, engage to closely.
I once took a group of students to visit a nursing home, and one of my students reflected with me afterwards that he was uncomfortable because they were just so sad and he didn’t know what to talk about. Who hasn’t has that initial experience of a nursing home?
That kind of reaction — unconscious aversion and avoidance, experienced as a feeling of sadness or discomfort or maybe even irritation — leads me to believe that something is being revealed to us about ourselves. Nothing terrifies us more than that part of us we’ve pushed away and disowned, projected onto someone else. In our pragmatic, logocentric, transactional society, what is more terrifying than the possibility of being unable to move freely, or being unable to speak clearly to relate and exchange ideas? But of course we all experience that sometimes — in many ways we are unavoidably bound and hindered, and find self-expression hard, and struggle to reach out and touch another person. We all have some elements that are disabled, that are autistic, that are weak.
And I don’t just mean it’s something that sometimes happens to us. These are a fundamental part of us. Nothing is left out. It’s not just that I am sometimes like that — it’s that those things are a part of the universe that makes me. It is just as it is, with me and with others. It’s is closer to me than some idea I have of my able-bodied and -minded self. “More like you than you.”
It seems that, when you encounter someone who you initially understand as different in some way, that experience of difference can be seen with some finality (“they’re just different”, or it can be seen as an invitation to see beyond the difference. This is both personal, introspective work and social, communal work. Here I’ve talked about it along the abled-bodied and mental illness axes, but you can see this extended to other dualism: white-black, male-female, straight-gay, cis-trans, wealthy-poor. Whatever. The other is no other but your self, and we share a mutual responsibility to respond to the other as a revealer and hold of our selves.
We are all holding one another in our lack and our wholeness, and no one, not one single person, is left out of that branched and rooted and intertwined holding, of that compassionate, sustaining structure. How do we live in it? What is the quality of our holding and sustenance?