True Connection Requires Our Bodies and Our Minds

Friday, June 2, 2017 - 4:40 pm

True Connection Requires Our Bodies and Our Minds

We had been friends for a few years before he shared his secret with me. Even though we were eating lunch at a noisy restaurant and it was unlikely that anyone was paying attention to our conversation, Peter lowered his voice and leaned in to whisper to me: “I am undocumented.” We had been talking about his lovely mother, who lived in his home country and about whom I had heard many stories. That day at lunch, Peter also told me that his mom had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Though Peter and his mother talked and corresponded often, he hadn’t seen her since he had left his home country 15 years prior. I had obliviously attributed this circumstance to a lack of travel funds, but now I understood that it was his immigration status that prevented his return home. Now more than ever, Peter desperately wanted to visit her, but he knew that if he left the U.S. he wouldn’t be allowed to return. Given his obligations to his young family in the U.S., Peter made the heart-breaking decision not to visit his dying mom.

While pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology and psychology, I had read numerous books, taken a dozen courses, and written multiple research papers on issues related to immigration and global stratification. However, as a privileged U.S. citizen, I hadn’t personally experienced the trials of being undocumented or felt the frustration of geographic immobility while a loved one approached death in a far-off land. But through my friendship with Peter — getting to know his family in the U.S., listening to him share about the oppression he experienced on a daily basis, and seeing photographs of his life and family in his home country — I got a glimpse of a world that had previously eluded me, despite all of my studies.

In many ways, Peter’s life was marked by sorrow and loss — and that was more evident than ever during our lunch conversation that day. While listening to him talk about his mom, I felt an urge to travel to his home country to visit her on his behalf.

I couldn’t help but notice that such an urge was new to me; it violated my culturally conditioned individualistic American sensibilities. Why would I embark on a logistically complex and costly international journey for someone who wasn’t my significant other or related to me? Why did I care so much about the characters in a story that was so different from my own?

I’m no goody-goody, but I couldn’t shake the idea. In the course of being friends with Peter, I had begun to identify with him, his family, and his story. Once I saw the world from his perspective, my myopic, individualistic viewpoint was broadened to include his too.

And that changed everything — how I viewed myself, how I was willing to spend “my” money and time, and the extent to which I felt connected to people with perspectives, problems, and homelands that were nothing like my own.

Social psychologists have discovered that when we become close friends with people, we literally expand our sense of self to include them in it. As a result, we naturally incorporate their perspective into our perspective, their resources become our resources (and vice versa), their failures become our failures, and we take up their causes as if they were our own causes. In short, we identify with them and are changed as a result of relationship with them.

Though they weren’t formally educated in social psychology, the early Christian mystics understood that we are our best human selves when we are participating in mutual, interdependent relationship with people who are different from us. They used the term perichoresis to describe the nature of the relationship of the members of the Trinity — God the Creator, Christ the Liberator, and the Spirit the Comforter. Rather than simply hanging out as a threesome or collaborating with each other, perichoresis describes the mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity. In other words, though each member is culturally distinct (e.g., they each have unique identities, perspectives, and experiences) each member’s self overlaps with the selves of the other members. In doing so, they influence each other and allow the other members to influence their interior experiences and identities.

The result is a cosmic cross-cultural relationship centered on mutual dependence. Indeed, the members are so interdependent that they cease to exist outside of relationship with each other. For example, God the Creator is self-actualized only because God is indwelled by Christ and the Spirit, and is open to being influenced by Christ’s and the Spirit’s distinct cultural realities. Outside of interdependent, cross-cultural relationship with Christ and the Spirit, God the Creator ceases to exist. Each of the individual members find and maintain their unique identities in the context of the mutually interdependent, culturally-diverse relationship of the Trinity.

Many religious streams, including the Christian tradition, purport that humans are made in the image of the Divine. If this is true, and if mutual indwelling is at the heart of the Divine, then humans are most able to participate in the divine when we participate in relationships that are also marked by mutual indwelling — that is, intimate cross-cultural relationships in which we vulnerably open ourselves to being influenced by people who are culturally different than us. However, our individualistic Western society often impedes these sorts of relationships.

So often, spiritually minded Westerners like myself who seek personal freedom and desire to do good in the world go about it in an individualistic way that is consistent with our cultural programming. We mistakenly believe that our individualistic spiritual path will lead to true enlightenment. We believe that our non-conscious racial biases will lessen if we just listen to enough podcasts about race. We believe that reading books about global inequality will absolve us of our responsibility as privileged Westerners. We believe that world peace will come if we just do lovingkindness meditation at the local sangha surrounded by people who are racially and economically similar to us.

Though helpful, these spiritual practices ultimately require very little of us and fall quite short of perichoresis.

In order to achieve true enlightenment and begin to participate in the healing of this broken and divided world, we must divest ourselves of our individualistic conditioning. This requires deep physical relationships with people who are different from us.

As someone who identifies with some privileged groups and tends to be individualistic, I have begun to think of cross-cultural relationships as a simple, costly, and transformational spiritual practice. This spiritual practice teaches me by requiring me to leave my cultural comfort zone, get outside of my academic and analytical head, open myself up to being impacted by someone else’s reality, alter my social geography, learn to embody (and not just talk about) practices of liberation and advocacy, and put my money and time where my mouth is.

This spiritual practice is simple but not for the faint of heart. It is through this practice that my privilege, internalized racism and colonialism, and attachment to comfort are brought to the surface and I am forced to reckon with them. We often idealize cross-cultural relationships, not recognizing ways in which privilege and power differences prevent us from truly connecting.

As I have pursued and sustained such relationships, I’ve needed to divest myself of privilege by confronting the paralyzing shame I feel when I encounter someone who is oppressed, learning to sit with the pain of my friends without trying to “fix it,” relinquishing my need to control the direction and pace of the relationship, and learning to lean into and ultimately embrace (rather than recoil from) the anger of people who are oppressed. Said differently, I’ve needed to participate in mutual indwelling, allowing myself to be transformed by being in interdependent relationship with people who are culturally different from me. It is through this process that I begin to participate in the collective liberation for which I long.

We are enfleshed spirits; our spirituality is rooted in our physical world. We are most human and most divine when we experience mutual and physical connections across cultural lines, in a way that costs us and changes us. Four months after my lunch conversation with Peter, I traveled to his home country to visit his mom. I carried his blessing as well as an armful of gifts that he had sent with me to give to his family. I was simply the messenger, but I knew that I had been invited into a sacred space — a space that continues to call me out of individualism and into freedom.

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Contributor

Christena Cleveland

is a social psychologist, public theologian, author and professor. She teaches at Duke University’s Divinity School and is the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.

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  • Gabby

    What you have expressed here is so important, particularly this paragraph: “So often, spiritually minded Westerners like myself who seek personal freedom and desire to do good in the world go about it in an individualistic way that is consistent with our cultural programming. We mistakenly believe that our individualistic spiritual path will lead to true enlightenment. We believe that our non-conscious racial biases will lessen if we just listen to enough podcasts about race. We believe that reading books about global inequality will absolve us of our responsibility as privileged Westerners. We believe that world peace will come if we just do lovingkindness meditation at the local sangha surrounded by people who are racially and economically similar to us.Though helpful, these spiritual practices ultimately require very little of us …” I would add that casual contacts with those unlike ourselves doesn’t go much farther, like attending a multicultural event or taking ones kids for swimming lessons to the local Y.
    What really makes a difference is a merging of lives.

    • Linda Gasparovic

      Love your “seeing of others for who they are”!

  • Linda Gasparovic

    I am intrigued by your statement, “. . . he hadn’t seen her since he had left his home country 15 years prior. I had obliviously attributed this circumstance to a lack of travel funds, but now I understood that it was his immigration status that prevented his return home.” As someone who grew up in a poor neighborhood, where many were on food stamps and welfare, my reality growing up was not one of individualism, but of deep connection. People with little shared what they had with those who had less. As a child my friends confided their secrets like incest, or their family’s experiences of racism . . . and not having the funds to return home, regardless of immigration status, was the rule, not the exception. This leads me to ask what difference does not being able to return home based on financial hardship vs immigration status make to you? Is one seen as more tragic than the other?

    This question is not so much a criticism as an observation of America being two countries as described by Peter Temin in his book “The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy”. Not only do those in the top 20% enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and social networks to bolster their success, they often assume that all of America shares their “culture” since they rarely “visit the country where the other 80 percent of Americans live.” So, while I agree with Gabby that many spiritually minded Westerners go about doing good in “an individualistic way that is consistent with our cultural programming” I think it is important to recognize this “cultural programming” is not a reality for all of America . . . it is a truth for those in the top 20%. On the “Class Matters” website, (http://www.classmatters.org/2005_07/) their comparison of middle class professional and working class culture contrasts “Unintended Homogeneity” with “Unavoidable Diversity”. The latter is what I experienced growing up, and I agree with the social scientists you quote that when we open ourselves to others, “we naturally incorporate their perspective into our perspective, their resources become our resources (and vice versa), their failures become our failures, and we take up their causes as if they were our own causes.” It was hearing the story of my black friend who grew up in Mississippi in the sixties and was afraid that she would be killed going to school . . . of my Japanese friend’s treatment by another friend’s mother who didn’t know her child was bringing home a non-white friend . . . these were real friends who suffered in a way different from my experience and made me take on their causes as if they were my own. I also had a white friend who was being sexually abused by her brother, and a sister who was disabled, and my non-white friends took on these friend’s causes as their own. Neighbors shared their food stamps if they saw another neighbor who was worse off, and despite our run-down houses and hand-me-downs, we somehow felt secure in our shared sense of community.

    My point is, I’m not certain we always recognize the cultural differences between wealthy and poor Americans. So long as the top 20% assume all Americans have an individualistic culture . . . that individualism is the norm . . . is this another example of “not recognizing ways in which privilege and power differences prevent us from truly connecting?” I am so grateful you shared your story, and I am so happy you were able to make such a deep connection with your friend that you were moved to serve as an ambassador to his mother, but “I had obliviously attributed this circumstance to a lack of travel funds, but now I understood that it was his immigration status that prevented his return home” still haunts me. Who is the “other” God is calling us to deeply connect with? Your article makes me reflect on the implied difference between “lack of funds” and “immigration status” and how that plays out not only in who we seek out to befriend in our desire for “cultural diversity”, but in how we as a country view social programs for the working poor.

    Thank you for once again making me reflect deeply!

    • Gabby

      Hi, Linda. I so agree with your comment . I almost never find myself to have had the cultural programming that is assumed somehow for “Americans” and also almost never fit the stereotypes that many writers have of the common culture or the “mass” culture.
      The “we” or the “them” I read about in the writings of the very privileged typically do not fit me.
      I come across the issue you raise very often, that the most privileged Americans are often quite unaware of the cultural programming they do or do not share with the 80% or the 99% of the rest of us.

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