The Other and Familiar
Over the past week, my best friend and I took a road trip to the Southwest. We did what you could call typical things: we stayed in an Airbnb and saw Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon. Besides being beautiful in their own respects, what I took away from these adventures are the memories I had watching different families and friends interact with each other.
Most of these people I have no business interacting with. Given normal life circumstances, I would probably have never met these people. Whether they were local Mormons, or the visiting Latino family from Arizona, or just a couple of college students just done with their Freshmen years, there was little overlap between their experiences and mine. But we were all brought to the same location for a brief period of time.
The ancient rocks towered over us. The river flowed through our clothes. The sun warmed us more than we probably liked. After an entire lifetime without knowledge of the others’ existence, our lives converged for some brief moments.
The overwhelming experience as I visited these locations was that of complete otherness. But I felt the otherness of these people not as something to fear but as a surprising lesson in understanding.
As I hiked peaks and walked through rivers, I noticed the people around me and the way they interacted with one another. A father and his son, an aunt and her nephew, a teenage girl with her family, all engaged in some push-and-pull, give-and-take, talk-and-listen. From these brief moments where our experiences converged, I wanted to know a couple of things:
- What is this father thinking when he tells his son to be safe as they descended Angel’s Landing?
- What is this tattooed aunt experiencing as she encourages her nephew in the problem solving skills that he’s gained from video games?
- What is this girl feeling as she takes the late afternoon shuttle home with her family?
To say I was just people watching is a complete understatement. I wanted to understand who these people were, but I knew that engaging them in conversation would not give me what I was looking for. As much as some of us would love to communicate our experiences to another, most admit their inability to do so.
“Ah I can’t explain it, you just had to be there.”
I’ve found myself in that situation so many times. When one shares about their experiences, there is so much post-processing that, when done in off-the-cuff in conversations, will in fact more alienate the listener from their experiences than bring him in. For example, when I was talking to people in Zion, here’s my inner chatter beneath the veneer of conversation:
- What does the listener want to hear? Are they young or old? Will they be more interested in hearing about awesome sights or the difficult hikes?
- What should I share given where we are? Is the shuttle going to stop soon? Is it just taking off? That will affect how I much I share.
I wanted to do away with all that post-processing altogether, to just catch others in their stream of consciousness, and to experience life with them as they were experiencing it.
So by trying to completely absorb myself in the others’ worlds, I didn’t want anyone to explain anything at all. I wanted to just there with them. I needed to see them completely natural, absorbed in their own worlds, as they were enjoying and experience life on their own terms.
When I absorbed myself in everyone else’s worlds, a sense of empathy washed over me. I saw the anxious excitement as the father watched his son scale the walls of Angel’s Landing. I heard the confidence in the aunt’s voice as she affirmed her nephew’s video game skills. I felt the energy shoot through this tired daughter as she shared a funny Snapchat with her grandmother.
Don’t think that this was some interesting thought experiment, some theoretical past-time. It was all so physical, so visceral. I’m pretty sure that if you hooked me up to a physiological monitoring device, indicators would go off in correlation with whom’s experience I was absorbing myself into.
Like the father, I’ve felt that anxious excitement before when I took friend’s younger brother biking down busy streets.
Like the aunt, I’ve felt that confidence before when I use my voice to build up and affirm the lessons my sister learned in her extravagant yet disillusioned years.
Like the teenage girl, I’ve felt the energy course through me when I come home from a tiring day of work but my friends are ready to have a good time.
No matter how different the histories, personalities, and dispositions of the people around me were, I felt in those passing moments the others’ experiences that make them less other and more familiar.
I guess that in this post I’ve tried to do exactly what I said above is so difficult. I’m trying to tell you about what I felt being absorbed in others’ experiences. But whether or not I was successful, there’s still a point to be made. We’re incredibly fortunate that the United States has such an extensive list of National Parks. They attract millions of visitors from around the world every year, which affords each of us the opportunity to intersect our lives with others that we would have not otherwise.
The next time you travel, you’re offered the unique opportunity to be with people you’d never be with otherwise, experiencing the same things you experience. Instead of just logging the times with friends and the beautiful surroundings, see, listen, and feel with the other. What do you experience? Because whatever otherness is initially there might make way for something less so.