Monday, February 16, 2015


I believe I mentioned a few posts ago that I was spending more time reading and getting caught up on my favorite magazines.  Towards that end, I started the Winter Lapham's Quarterly called Foreigners.  Interestingly, I thought of this edition while I was watching the movie Good Will Hunting a few days ago.  The movie, if you are not familiar with it, involves a young man named Will Hunting who has an amazing gift for mathematics despite being an orphan, being exposed to a number of abusive foster situations, and having received no formal education in math.  He is "discovered" as a result of his working as an overnight custodian at Harvard where he has been solving advanced mathematical theorems placed on chalkboards in the hallways of the math department as a challenge to the students of the school. 

The scene which reminded me of Foreigners occurs between Will and his psychologist, a wonderful part played by the recently departed Robin Williams.  This is the second meeting between the two, the first having resulted in Will using his ability to hurt (before being hurt) Robin's character (Sean)by analyzing his painting.  Sean, having stayed up half the night thinking about Will's hatchet job, especially as it related to Sean's marriage, takes Will to a local park.  As they are sitting there, Sean admits to Will that he got to him, but then tells Will that eventually a realization hit him, and he immediately forgot Will and fell asleep.

Sean uses his vulnerability to Will's attack to begin Will's therapy.  He tells Will that just as it is impossible for Sean to even glimpse the pain and suffering that Will endured as a child merely by watching Oliver Twist, so it is impossible for Will to really know Sean just by looking at a picture he painted.  He tells Will that only through getting to know him, listening to Will, and by Will being willing to tell his story, can Sean truly understand him.

So, returning to Lapham's Quarterly, Foreigners, there are essays and stories, one after another, which describe how we, individually and communally, circle the wagons, so to speak, to create "we" and "they".   We prefer to read about "they", or even worse, take the word of our institutions who belittle they as barbarians, or worshipers of the wrong god, or cloaked in the wrong color skin. We prefer to act as Will, who uses his skills to reduce everyone he encounters to one dimensional caricatures, as opposed to our own complicated versions of "we". 

Among a number of interesting quotes, there is one by Confucius that particularly struck me.
"By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice they get to be wide apart".  I interpret that as the understanding that at birth we are very similar.  But, as our lives progress, we are taught how to identify "they", how to hate those that are different.  If, on the other hand, we were to seek to understand each other rather than accepting a stereotypical version of who "they" are as presented by our governments, our religions, our race, we might be able to remember how we are all the same as opposed as to how we might be different. 

Another interesting section of this Lapham's edition, displayed some maps of the world and how various treaties, laws, pacts either included or excluded other people.  One interesting note was that before the 1986 passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act which increased barriers and patrols along the border between the US and Mexico, before that Act, upwards of 85% of illegal entrants were offset by returning immigrants; after the law, the number dropped to 10%.  Now, I respect the editors of Lapham's as any reader of my blog knows, and would like to find some corroborating evidence of this fact, but even if it is only mostly accurate, imagine the ramifications of that information being widely discussed and disseminated.  Kind of changes one's perspective of the recent immigration talk that emanates from Washington, and all the talk about increasing patrols and barriers between the two countries.     

Xenophobia is defined as the fear of strangers or foreigners in some dictionaries, the unreasonable fear of strangers or foreigners in others.  I find it interesting that some add unreasonable, as I accept that it is reasonable to be wary of what is different, but attribute so much of the violence in the world to that wariness when it blossoms into fear, then hatred.  As a child begins to understand the world, his mind begins to incorporate all the new sensations, groups them, connects them to known sensations, resulting in less fear and a larger store of experiences through which even more encounters can be less feared, more easily absorbed into that ever growing set of things not strange, things not to be feared.  However, somewhere along the line, our cup of experiences fills, or we decide to shut out anything new that doesn't already live in our set of sensations.  We stop expanding our "we", but even worse, we focus too much on increasing our definition of "they". 

Here is a hint.  When he hear someone in a public forum, TV, radio, etc.  Listen for how many times they use we and they.  Whether it is to unite or to isolate.  Try to calculate how wide a tent their "we" truly is and how often "they" are blamed for the troubles of the day.  Then ask yourself if you prefer leaders who incorporate a disparate citizenry or only a special subset.  And, finally, if it is the latter you prefer, pray that someday you are not labeled among the "they" when a new group is needed to blame or excoriate.

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