An ancient fear of “the other”

Human nature includes an ancient fear of “the other.” In the face of diversity, we feel tension – and that, in turn, can lead to discomfort, distrust, conflict, violence, and even war. So we have developed a variety of strategies to evade our differences, strategies that only deepen our fear, such as associating exclusively with “our own kind” or using one of our well-tested methods to dismiss, marginalize, demonize, or eliminate the stranger. When our ancient fear of otherness is left unacknowledged, unattended, and untreated, diversity creates dysfunctional communities, as Putnam’s study reminds us. The benefits of diversity can be ours only if we hold our differences with respect, patience, openness, and hope, which means we must attend to the invisible dynamics of the heart that are part of democracy’s infrastructure. 

For example, we regard “tension” as a condition to be relieved, not an energy to hold in our hearts. Tension creates stress, which leads to ill health, so we must reduce or eliminate these enemies of well-being. That is good advice if our stress comes from a toxic workplace, an abusive relationship, or some other assault on body or soul. But the stress that comes from being stretched by alien ideas, values, and experiences is of a different sort. This is why some psychologists distinguish between distress (which is negative and destructive), and eustress (which is positive and a prod to growth). It is important to know the difference. Positive stress may try our patience and yet it can help our hearts become more spacious and generous. Refuse to hold stress of this sort, and our society as well as our souls will suffer from shrinkage and stagnation.

From “Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit” by Parker J. Palmer