Seeing Other as Self, Seeing Self as Other


One of the great blessings of travel is being able not only to see another culture, but returning to your own culture and seeing yourself with fresh eyes. Mirrors can’t do that.

That’s also true of certain movies, like the film “Babies” (2010) which showcases Mongolian, African, and American mothers and babies in such a way that us Americans see our families – to acclimate to someone else’s normal, and then to rapidly return to your own, allows you to see and feel the concrete textures and weirdness of your own “normal.” Terrence Mallick’s “New World” does that for English culture.

A fish doesn’t know it’s wet. It would have to be dry long enough and then suddenly dunked in the weird, slippery wetness.

Empathy may be the capacity to see the other as yourself. But there is an equal and opposite capacity I don’t know the name for: the capacity to to see yourself as other. If I could have one superpower, it would be the power to see myself as others see me, and to see others as they see themselves.

Tonight I saw a talent show at a high school. I could see Santa Clarita culture, in all its weird, vivid, freshness. Not to say I saw it as good or bad; just that I saw its humanity. We LA people don’t know we are “LA” any more than a fish knows it’s wet. But it’s obvious to people in Portland, or Witchita, or Boston.

Tonight I saw the sharp, jagged outlines of Southern California, Greater LA culture as clearly as I could truly feel the otherness of a tribal rain dance or hearing an Australian didgeridoo dirge, or a medieval Gregorian chant. It was a gift!