“The wisdom of the Desert Fathers includes the wisdom that the hardest spiritual work in the world is to love the neighbor as the self – to encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enroll, convince or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you will allow it.” – Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World (Chapter 6, “The Practice of Encountering Others”)
What does the author mean, that the other can “spring you from the prison of yourself”?
These words resonate with those of Fr. Richard Rohr, who says “It is always an encounter with otherness that changes me,” giving me “a reference point that relativizes all of my own.” “Without the other,” he continues, “we are all trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors that only validates and deepens our limited and already existing worldviews.” And, “Until we have points of comparison, we don’t understand much. When we have those, we can relativize our private absolute center.” (Everything Belongs)
I think Rohr and Taylor are getting at the same reality – all of us naturally function / exist as the center of our own universe. We see things from our perspective, and the world simply is (to us) as we know it to be. On a group scale, we call this ethnocentrism (seeing the world from the center of my group).
It is encountering the “Other” that can free us from this “prison” of our self, of our perpetual hall of mirrors, where I only see what I see and assume the world is that way. It can do this work of setting us free “if we allow it.”
To return to a personal example – as I grew up Minnesotan Swedish Baptist, my understanding of being Christian was defined by and limited to an understanding of how we were Christian. I was unaware that there were different practices, perspectives, interpretations (of baptism, church life, lifestyle issues like drinking alcohol, etc.). All I could see was our way of being Christian, and was thus, “trapped in a perpetual hall of mirrors” (in “the prison of myself” / of our group), where I could only see ourselves, our ways. It was the encounter with other types of Christians, in University and in the Middle East, especially, that began to “awaken” (free) me, to show me more of the breadth of ways of being Christian, in doctrine, ways of reading and understanding the Bible, practices. This process “relativized my private absolute center,” putting my understanding of how to be Christian in relation to more of the fullness (through history and across the world) of how others were/are Christian.
At the time, the process felt challenging, unnerving, at times overwhelming, like things were unravelling, coming apart. Eventually it came to feel liberating and enriching. And this, I think, is why both Taylor and Rohr speak so highly of the value of encountering others.
To come back (as I always do!) to the Intercultural Development Continuum, this is what intercultural growth and development, i.e., the movement into the phases of Acceptance and Adaptation, is all about – growing in our ability to see ourselves in light of and in relation to different others.