Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

***Author’s Note: I wrote this article, “Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?” many years ago, at a little cafe in Granada, Nicaragua.  It was written before I had a blog, on an old computer ~ & I’d thought this article (& that computer) were both lost.  But I found the computer this morning…with the article in tact, & given the recent college admissions scandal ~ perhaps, more relevant than ever. 

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? Girl Who Travels the World

The author on the border of Peru & Bolivia, on one of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca ~ at the start of three years of travel through Central & South America.  Some people would call these places, “third-world” countries. I hope to shed a different light on this term by the conclusion of this article.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

“What if home isn’t a place?  What if it’s an idea?”

Three years ago, I left home for South America with this idea looming in my mind.  I wanted to travel the world, but deeper still, I wanted to feel at home in the world ~ wherever I was. 

But this can be challenging.  During my first few days in a new place, I typically feel displaced, uncertain.  I’m not 100% comfortable yet, & that can be unnerving.  It’s akin to learning a new skill & failing badly in the beginning. 

This uncertainty could come from not having the place completely mapped out in my head, which makes me feel slightly out of control.  Or it could be that everything just seems so foreign.  “Why are there packs of dogs roaming the streets, eating from piles of trash?!”  The voice in my head continues: “Why are there so many piles of trash to begin with?!?”).  In the beginning, “foreign” can feel so different that it’s almost maddening. Frustrating. Annoying.  Instead of being exotic & exciting, that which is “foreign” becomes entirely unrelatable, & at times, even worthy of our disdain. 

These different things, these foreign things: they are the “Other.”  

And they are definitely not us. 

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? Girl Who Travels the World

Cusco, Peru was my first stop in South America ~ where it’s not unusual to see packs of dogs roaming the streets, unsupervised. To us, this seems very strange; an entirely “foreign” concept. But to those who live there, it’s perfectly normal. These small differences, at first, can make it hard for us to understand each other.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

Now when I travel, I’ve grown used to feeling not at home, during my first few days in a new place.  I’ve gotten used to feeling a little strange.  And oddly enough, the more I’ve come to expect difficulty upon this initial transition, the easier my transitions have become.  It made me wonder if part of this discomfort upon entering a new place, or meeting new people, has to do with the idea that we don’t know who we are in this new place.  I wondered:

How much of our identity is, in fact, wrapped up in place?

And how much of our identity resides in how others perceive us, by whatever labels they’ve attached to us?  “She’s the free spirit!” “He’s the CEO of Nike & makes great money.” “She’s a total bitch!”  “He’s not going anywhere in life ~ total loser.”

How much do these labels inform our own ideas about ourselves?  How much can we feel, or sense, other people’s judgments?

Quite a lot, I’ve come to imagine. 

For some people, this may turn into: “I’ve lived here in this great, wealthy suburb for most of my life ~ I’m in control of my surroundings.  I’m in control of myself.  I’m secure.  I know who I am.  I’m better than.”  But do they really know who they are ~ or do they just know themselves in that place?  What would happen if you took them out of that place where they feel so comfortable, & dropped them in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ~ or Medellin, Colombia?  What would happen then?  Who would they become?

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? 15 Photos to Inspire Your Cartagena Trip, Girl Who Travels the World

In Colombia, I became “Noelia.”

It’s my distinct feeling as I’ve traveled that, many travelers from “first-world” countries have developed some version of this: “The fact that I have more money than you, or live in more luxurious surroundings ~ makes me feel superior to, or insulated from, those who have less than me.”  I have felt & witnessed this ALL over the world, whether it’s through subtle digs or more overt jabs people make, at “third-world” countries & those who inhabit them.

Which is why, when we travel to “third-world” countries, it can be so, so uncomfortable. 

I began to wonder if, upon arrival in new places that are very “foreign,” we don’t actually experience a mini-identity crisis when we find ourselves without the familiarity of friends, family, our “safe” neighborhood, our local Starbucks.

This idea didn’t seem too far off-base. 

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

So now, let’s re-insert my initial little idea, that was whispering in my head for months…with that strong, yet gentle voice that only we can hearWe often hear this voice following particularly difficult periods in our lives.  Many times, in the days following grief or tragedy, we are offered some of the best insights of our lives.  

And these moments have something to do with the answering of this question:

Are you living the life you should be living ~ or are you living the life you were born to live, the life you were meant to live?

If the answer between the former & latter varies too greatly, it has the potential to trigger a mini-crisis ~ & with it, the possibility for major change.

So what if, in the midst of profound discomfort, or through periods of grief & loss ~ what if, even in these moments, we could feel at home in them?  What if we could settle into them, settling into the discomfort even slightly, & realize: this is where I am right now ~ instead of trying to fight it? 

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? Girl Who Travels the World

If you look back at periods of major change in your life, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t grief, sadness, or anger preceding it. Divorce. Getting fired. Breaking up with someone. Grief can be a catalyst for major change.

Yet, we are so uncomfortable being uncomfortable.  Particularly Americans: we are the most comfort-filled nation in the world.  We have more avenues of escape from discomfort than nearly anywhere on the planet: from Tinder to booze, legal drugs to illegal drugs, factory-farmed, fake-food to artificial-everything, sugar-in-everything, triple-caffeinated, overly-whipped, sugar-filled frappacinos; from Netflix to social media to plain old TV & thousands of channels, from video games to Ipads/Iphones/Androids/whatever’s “newest!”  To fast-food everywhere, to the fast, coming-at-you-too-fast, all-the-time, 24-hour-news-cycle, non-stop, overly-stimulated, overly game-ified, media-oriented, pop-culture-obsessed, “Who are we going to shame today?!”, mainstream, American culture. 

Welcome to the United States!!

Do you even remember where I started that last sentence??  I don’t.  And that’s the point.  We are distracted by all of our distractions, to the point of distraction.

In America, huge industries have been born & kept alive by giving us thousands of avenues to escape the uncomfortable.  

To escape feeling uncomfortable. 

To escape feeling.

The grandest of all these is the mighty & all-powerful pharmaceutical industry.  No other industry was borne with such a clear & intent mission as to literally shield us from feeling discomfort of ANY kind.  In some cases, this is wonderful.  In others, it is gravely & terribly wrong. 

There’s a pill for everything these days. 

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

How many people in America are on anti-depressants, for instance?  Statistics tell us that the number is between 11-13% of the U.S. population.  And in certain age groups, the number is greater.  For women between the ages of 40-50, the number is closer to 25%.  One in FOUR.

If we are one of the most comfortable nations on earth ~ why are so many of us depressed?

And are all those on medication truly, chemically-depressed?  Or are they, in some cases, lacking things that are nourishing & necessary to being human:

  1. Real food that isn’t “fake,” processed, or packaged;
  2. Good, vigorous exercise EVERY DAY, preferably outside in the fresh air;
  3. A feeling of true community;
  4. The ability to fully & truly be themselves, & the knowing that they are supported for who they really are; 
  5. The ability to face problems, as opposed to drugging/drowning out/avoiding them, or simply pretending they don’t exist; 
  6. A true sense of purpose, that their life inherently has value & meaning ~ & that they are valued; 
  7. A life they really & truly want ~ versus a life they don’t.

Do you know anyone who has all these things ~ & isn’t among the most radiant, most vibrant people you know?  And do you know anyone who lacks many or all of these things, & is not, in some way ~ sick?

The question I keep coming back to is this: In a nation filled with the greatest amount of comfort on earth ~ why are we so uncomfortable facing ourselves, in this society? 

What are we afraid of? 

And why are we so afraid of the “Other?”

That dangerous person lurking on the edge of our dreams…the strange outsider, the foreigner…that city or country or religion so different from our own.  When it comes down to it, the “Other” is really anyone who isn’t us.  And yet, we’re all the “Other” somewhere, in some part of the world.

I would suggest, that the “Other” is really a mask for our terror of facing ourselves, of facing the parts of ourselves that we really don’t want to face, of facing the worst things that have ever happened to us.  What we are really afraid of, is facing what is ugly or unkind or dark or scary, or downright crazy ~ about ourselves.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? 

We are so uncomfortable facing ourselves, as Americans ~ & to compound this, we live in a society where we’re surrounded by endless distractions: electronic devices, commercials (“Viagra!  You need to try it!”), vices, drugs, & non-stop info-tainment ~ all in the name of making us feel more “comfortable.” 

Well, it’s fucking back-fired.

Our excessive need for comfort is the very thing that will kill us.  Our excessive need to avoid discomfort, is what will do us in.  It is no different for a country than it is for an individual. 

The recent college admission scandal is an extreme example of this idea: rich parents wanting their kids to avoid the terrible “discomfort” of getting a bad test score, or of getting rejected from the college of their choice (more likely, the parent’s choice).  In this case, they have gone to EXTREME lengths in order for their kids, & by extension themselves, to avoid discomfort.

And yet, how resilient are kids who have been shielded from ever feeling discomfort? 

I would argue that, what will ultimately make Lori Loughlin’s kids stronger in the long run: is this very scandal.  Because it is the one thing their parents couldn’t shield them from (or in fact, caused), & it will likely be one of the worst things that ever happens to them: i.e. a public shaming of the highest magnitude.  When they ultimately make it through this chapter, yes ~ they will be stronger.  But perhaps more importantly, they will be wiser.  Or at least, wiser than their parents.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? Girl Who Travels the World

These girls are already young, rich, & beautiful. But in America, this is not enough. Photo by Getty Images.

Let’s return to this idea of “third-world” countries (a term I do not love), for a moment.  Let’s take a quick look at two different people: Person #1 hails from somewhere in upper-middle class California, the suburbs ~ a kid who’s been given a trophy every time he sets foot on the soccer field, simply because here, we’re “all special.”  He never learned what it meant to lose.  He was always a “winner.”  After half-assing his way through school & a few extra-curricular activities (that his mom encouraged him into because it would “look good on his transcript“), he plays video games in the afternoon & Snapchats with his buddies, then complains to his parents at night when they ask him to bring his dishes up to the sink (even though his mom is actually the one who does the dishes).

Now, we have Person #2, who lives just outside of Medellin, Colombia.  She’s the mother of three boys, two of whom joined the drug trade back in their teens, & who returned to her in body bags two years later.  She wept for months, maybe years, & felt the depths of blackness in her soul at facing the worst thing any parent could face: losing a child.  Or in her case, children.  The drug lords responsible for their deaths told her to “be quiet,” to “shut her mouth” ~ or they would kill her last son, too.  It didn’t really matter if they killed her or not, because she already felt dead inside. 

Either way, their job would be complete.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other? Girl Who Travels the World

Two members of the “Mothers of the Candelaria” group in Medellin, Colombia ~ holding photos of family members who have “disappeared.” Photo by Raul Arboleda.

Yet somehow, this woman, many years later, along with some of her friends who also lost sons to drug violence, started a group for women.  It gave them a place to grieve, to howl with sadness; this is a place where they are allowed to feel their rage. Eventually, they gathered the strength to stand up, together, & speak out against the very people who killed their sons.  Those who have already lost, who have faced their worst fears ~ are actually no longer afraid: of anyone, or anything. 

I use this example, because Person #1 is a classic American archetype; I’m sure you’ve met (or been) someone like this.  Privileged. Entitled. Comfortable.  And yet, Person #2 is also a common archetype, particularly south of the border.  If you’ve spent any time in Mexico, Central America, or Colombia: you’ve probably met someone like this.  You can see the pain etched on their faces.  It never leaves them.  They have faced trauma & terror; they come from NO advantage. 

And yet somehow, they’ve still managed to rise.

Why Are We So Afraid of the Other?

And this brings me to the crux of the issue I have when people denigrate, or think they are “better than,” those from “third-world” countries: something about it insults my soul.  Because frankly, I know better.  I know we are not “better,” simply because we have more money.  My respect, my admiration, goes to the man or woman in the arena.  My respect goes to the one who’s gone toe-to-toe with their deepest fears, & looked them straight in the face ~ without drinking or drugging their way out of feeling the pain.  Anyone who can look at their deepest pain without flinching, is the one who will have earned my deepest respect. 

For that is the type of person I’d rather be.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust & sweat & blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again & again… who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, & who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States

Comfort is what will kill us.  Being too comfortable threatens our growth.  It prevents us from striving.  On the other hand, being uncomfortable changes us at the core.  It strengthens us.  It makes us tougher.  Having things handed to us, having our lives made more & more comfortable, ends up doing just the opposite. 

A wise person, particularly one living in a very “comfortable” society, purposely seeks out discomfort.  Whether by travel, rigorous athletic endeavor, constant learning, honing their skills, reaching for their highest achievements, by seeking out & listening to “Others,” or perhaps, most difficult of all: by facing their own inner fears & darkness.  For that is hardest of all. 

But when you can do it ~ when you have done it, there is very little left to fear. 

And that’s worth stepping into the arena for.

xoxo Noelia

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