Meeting Difference – Our Conflict with Contact

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“Otherness, taken seriously, always invites transformation, calling us not only to new facts and theories and values but also to new ways of living our lives – and that is the most daunting threat of all.”

Today, I came across this quote about the quintessential dilemma that difference and diversity pose, from sociologist and renowned expert on higher education, Parker Palmer (1998).

In our practice, we welcome individuals who often identify with a marginalized group or experience.  As a result, I often reflect on my own ability to embrace “otherness” and how it may help or hinder my clients’ abilities get to know parts of themselves, or their partners, that seem unknown, strange or unaccepted.  I like Palmer’s quote because he makes it clear how human our struggle with meeting difference is, what it is we attempt to stay apart from and why…

“We collaborate with the structures of separation because they promise to protect us against one of the deepest fears at the heart of being human – the fear of having a live encounter with alien “otherness,” whether the other is a student, a colleague, a subject, or a self-dissenting voice within.  We fear encounters in which the other is free to be itself, to speak its own truth, to tell us what we may not wish to hear. We want those encounters on our own terms, so that we can control their outcomes, so they will not threaten our view of the world and self…”

Palmer’s comments are focused on university life and higher education, but apply no less to other organizations we encounter in everyday life –  the companies large and small where we work, the communities in which we live, the clubs we and our children may belong to, religious and political groups with which we associate, as well as online communities and chat rooms we may frequent, etc…

“The fear of the live encounter is actually a sequence of fears that begins in the fear of diversity.  As long as we inhabit a university made homogenous by our refusal to admit otherness, we can maintain the illusion that we possess the truth about ourselves and the world – after all, there is no “other” to challenge us!  But as soon as we admit pluralism, we are forced to admit that ours is not the only standpoint, the only experience, the only way, and the truths we have built our lives on begin to feel fragile…

In moments when I am most open to the world of otherness and sameness that I live in, I can find some relief in the idea that mine is not the only truth or point of view. It comforts me to know that other ways of seeing the world, new ideas and solutions to the everyday human problems of identity, relationship, belonging and individuality are being generated, revised and reiterated by millions of other people who, like me, are finding new ways to live together in this world that we share with others.

About Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D., Dipl. PW

Cindy Trawinski is a licensed clinical psychologist, a Diplomate in Process-oriented Psychology (also known as Process Work) and a certified Imago Relationship Therapist. She is a founding partner of LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center and North Shore Psychotherapy Associates and has offices in Skokie, IL. Cindy is the former CEO of the Process Work Institute, in Portland, OR and a member of the International Association of Process-oriented Psychology (IAPOP), in Zurich, Switzerland. Cindy is a frequent speaker on topics including: Diversity and Multicultural Issues; Sex Positivity; Rank & Power; Therapist Bias; and Polyamory.

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