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Sunday, 24 June 2018 16:36

Who is the Stranger?

Written by Mef Ford
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Mef Ford – Boston Chapter

Hitchhiking across the country in his twenties, Sebastian Unger, author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, carried a tent, sleeping bag, cookpots and stove, and a week’s worth of food. As he waited on the highway, a dirty, wild-haired man walked up the ramp and studied him. “Where you headed?” he asked. “California.” “How much food you got?” Nervous and afraid of being robbed, Unger lied. “Oh, I just got a little cheese.” The man shook his head and said, “You need more than that to get to California.”

He said he lived in a broken-down car and every morning walked three miles to a coal mine to see if they needed fill-in work. This was one of the many days that they didn’t. “So, I won’t be needing this,” he said, opening his lunch box. “I saw you from town and just wanted to make sure you were okay.” With that he gave him a bologna sandwich, apple, and bag of chips, probably from a local church.

What kept Unger thinking about this all his life was not that the man had been generous; many people are. But that this fellow had walked half a mile out of his way to make sure he was okay. He had treated the hitchhiking stranger like a member of his tribe.

Unger writes of what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging, from disasters and wars as times of great bonding, when each pulls for every other. “Humans don’t mind hardship. In fact, they can thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary. And modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

So who is the stranger for us? Who is necessary and who dispensable? Whom do we consider and treat as outside our tribe? For most of us Affiliates, it is probably not the usual suspects--Serbs, Mexicans, and Iraqis, people of color and various sexual persuasions, etc. that we exclude from our kinship circles. They’re easy. Who is hard? Whom do we dismiss?

Close to home, one who doesn’t belong for me is my downstairs neighbor who is refusing to pay her share in a group plumbing bill that I have paid for. It is several reliably uncooperative community members who thwart consensus again and again because they must have their way. And definitely not in my tribe are self-serving wielders of power like certain politicians, gun lobbyists, partisan justices, and those who buy government influence.

Who is it for you? Priests who have abused children? The president? The pope? Callous polluters of the earth? Men who’ve taken advantage of women? Women who snipe at and undermine men?

It is not that harmful behaviors are acceptable. Or that the recipient needs to be “deserving.” Or that I pray ex cathedra for these misguided souls. And it’s not that I don’t take actions toward a more humane society. It is that my partisan mind and the ever-so-satisfying conversations maligning these unworthy outsiders further the alienation and divisions I suffer from and claim to abhor.

What to do? This is a newly consistent practice for me, so I take small steps. First, I genuinely bless myself with love and acceptance each day. Then, if I am able, I offer metta for each person I feel in opposition to. Metta is the Buddhist practice of wishing for the welfare and happiness of myself and other human beings. One by one, I express a desire: May you be happy. May you live with ease. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be at peace. May I have an open mind and heart. May I be at peace.

It is not at all easy to do this sincerely. But it’s a start. We need more than just a little cheese to get to our destinations. All of us. That is... all of us.

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