The Predicament of “Otherness”

The Predicament of “Otherness”

Years ago, a Harvard sociology professor spoke on the subject of “taming barbarians.” He maintained that across many diverse cultures and throughout time, the future and stability of every civilization depended on it. Barbarians were defined as boys and men, ages 15-25.

Barbarians, he said, tend to live for self-serving, short-term goals. Girls and women—as child-bearers—are fundamentally more interested in building the future. And so the taming force for guys comes down to whether or not they form committed relationships—through marriage and parenting.

However, in modern times (read: birth control and promiscuity) many young women are short-term-goalers too. Just think how many sitcoms and reality shows depict 20 to 30-somethings acting like junior high kids—cheating, lying, backstabbing, and hooking up. A & E’s Crazy Hearts: Nashville premiered last night offering just that.

And so marriage and family structures are at risk on more than one front. Committed relationships are the glue in all societies, and the lack of them brings instability and downfall. History is fraught with examples.

Maybe you’re offended by this professor’s analysis. I tend to agree with him, though I don’t see it as a gender issue—rather a human condition.

In our carnal nature, we’d like everything to be centered around our life, with others fitting in accordingly. We want control of the channel-changer. We secretly turn the thermostat up or down to our liking. Movies like The Stepford Wives (1975) and the recently released film called, Her (2013), explore the idea of spouses and lovers created as an extension of ourselves. We want the world to be “personalized” for us.

Google, Amazon, and Siri are constantly forming their sense of what we want, echoing our desires back to us. Pandora will make a radio station just for you. Writer, Cass Sunstein, says that this kind of thing is a form of modern slavery. Similar to Huxley’s Brave New World, “people have lots of fun, but their lives lack meaning or genuine connection.” Their desire for pleasure is both “seductive and soul-destroying.”

Basically, we’d like to eliminate the wildcard of another’s “otherness.”

In mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection not realizing it was merely an image—and this brought about his death. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, or a fixation with oneself.

We were created to desire connection and community. But we also desperately need real relationships with others in order to develop. Marriage is perhaps the most intense example of learning to love the “otherness” of another, yet parenting children easily compares.

Mike Mason says in, The Mystery of Marriage

“Love coaxes and even hoodwinks us into the making of a decision so radical, that if left to our own devices, we would never have entertained it for a moment…”

“To put it simply, marriage is a relationship far more engrossing than we want it to be. It always turns out to be more than we bargained for. It is disturbingly intense, disruptively involving…”

“One of the chief characteristics of love is that it asks for everything. The wedding is merely the beginning of a lifelong process of handing over absolutely everything. There is no one who is not broken by this process. It is excruciating and inexorable…”

“There is an important difference between marriages that last and are good, and the ones that either break up or drag on in a state of unresolved tension and neurosis. Both must endure ruin, but the difference lies in the place of ruin. In the case of those who hang on to commitment, the ruin is in the palace of the ego. In the case of those who don’t, it is the shipwreck of the soul.

“We do not choose to undergo such far-reaching encounters with our closest friends. Only marriage urges us into these deep and unknown waters. For that is its very purpose: to get us out beyond our depth, out of the shallows of our own secure egocentricity and into the dangerous and unpredictable depths of a real interpersonal encounter.”

And that is exactly the way God designed it to be.

(Okay, you might have to read Mike’s whole book.  A profound piece of writing, indeed.)

While commitment to others brings the necessary pain for growth and development, it pales in comparison to our relationship with God.

Sometimes we’d also like God to be created in our image—not the other way around. We want Him to reflect our world, operate by our rules. We want Him to say nice things and wink at our bad choices—unlike those judgmental Christians!

A Stepford god of sorts.

But His “otherness” is the exact prescription for our souls. And this means we will not always understand Him. He may allow things that break our hearts. We may question whether or not He’s doing a good job of being God.  Yes, I’ve been there.

Yet though He is altogether “OTHER” from us, He is eternally good. And that is why there is no real “taming of the barbarian” inside us, until we are in relationship with Him.

Does the “otherness” in people or God bother you?


  1. Rachel Schlender :

    Susan I found this so encouraging! We constantly do desire people to conform to fit ourselves because that is what is most comfortable or makes us feel best. This post shows me that we need to humble ourselves to be in the image of God and do the uncomfortable things to glorify Him. We don’t understand why He allows things to happen but it’s for His grand purpose to create the best “version” of each of us. Thank you for always starting my week with encouragement!

  2. Loved this post.

  3. the stepford god, that’s a good one. and true. i believe with my heart that the otherness we perceive in people and in god that bugs us, sometimes awfully, has to do with strategic artillery designed and used with skill by the enemy of our souls. when i remember this, i can use the power of the god of all gods to kick out the wanna be ursurper. need training, practice…bootcamp. we’re in a big bad battle.
    thanks, suze
    such good questions you present
    suzee B