Mind Matters — Xenophobia and Us

1826. What did the United States look like then? Recently, I discovered, hanging on a wall in a venerable financial institution, an old map of our country dated 1826. What a difference, then and now! Most of the land west of the Mississippi River was Mexico: that included California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Arizona, western Colorado. Isn’t it ironic that we build walls to keep out people whose country this was originally?

Which brings me to the topic: fear of others. Xenophobia is the word used to describe such fear, xeno being the Greek word meaning strange or other. “Stranger danger” is the motto of the xenophobe.

More irony. Xenophobia allows for an us-them mentality to pervade a society. “We’re good, they’re bad.” Hence, Hungary purports itself to be protective of its borders in the face of migrations from war-torn countries, especially Syria. Xenophobes suffer great memory loss, forgetting how they were refugees once. Hungarians fled during and after World War II and were aided by other nations. I remember the Hungarian revolution of 1956 also, when families fled to the U.S. in fact, one such family was given a home on the dairy farm of a Hungarian American family in my hometown. Their children became my classmates.

However, the Hungarian right-wing government (the citizens themselves have displayed great compassion) is only one example of xenophobia. We all carry a kernel of xenophobia within when we project badness onto others and feel self-righteous about ourselves. Of course, we need healthy personal boundaries. Of course, nations have boundaries. Yet, on both the personal and collective level, boundaries, to be healthy, need to be semi-permeable rather than rigid and inflexible.

Flexibility allows us to be accepting of the differences among us. Rather than setting us apart such diversity makes life more creative and colorful for everyone.

Reading about other cultures and traveling to foreign places can help us see that underneath the difference, there is a universality to our humanity. We all want a safe place to work, to raise our families.

Pope Francis is in the U.S. this week. Certainly, his message fosters this sense of care, not for the “other” but for those of “us” who are in need.

Actually, hospitality of the stranger is a theme throughout history. The poet David Whyte reminds us that “what is new, what is good, is provided by strangers.” So rather than “stranger danger,” we can welcome the stranger to expand our consciousness and our world! Besides, who of us does not have a history of immigration? Even the Native Americans do!

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