Updated: Oct 8, 2019
I should be stepping out into the car park at Tescos, I should be moving along with the mundane tasks of food shopping and returning these shoes that are a size too small. Instead, I am sitting in my car, rooted in place by awe, as I listen to the story of the disparate and largely unknown-to-each-other residents of a housing project in Berlin, who in May 2012 began building a protest camp in their public square. In his excellent (audio)book “Lost Connections. Uncovering The Real Cause of Depression and Its Unexpected Solutions” Hari describes how these residents, in response to the threatened eviction of a desperate elderly disabled woman, banded together to fight for her and themselves to keep their homes.
I sit here, almost dumbfounded, listening to the way more and more people from thoroughly different backgrounds, with different political views, different mother-tongues, different belief systems and biographies joined the cause. They needed to protect their camp through the night and day and so started a rota of residents who could guard and alert the neighborhood should the police arrive to dismantle. Pairs of people sat together, randomly assigned the same shift, such as the aforementioned elderly conservative Turkish woman, headscarved and wheelchaired with the young single Mum, pierced, tattooed and miniskirted. Awkward, distanced, polarised on many issues but over time lured into conversations about their lives by the simple act of sitting together for long enough. Conversations that began to bond through common deeply human themes despite vastly different settings and beliefs. Then as the summer weather arrived, the gay club opposite the protest camp began to supply seating, sun and rain cover, water for the protesters - including the large Turkish fraction of the protesters who by and large believed homosexuality to be repugnant and immoral.
Conversations that began to bond through common deeply human themes despite vastly different settings and beliefs.
Thus far in this story, something revolutionary has happened: these different polarised groups of people have found a way to lay aside their differences because they have a common need, a common fight. Next, something to my mind magical happens: Johann Hari describes the homeless man who begins to hang around the camp, offering to fix things here and there and carry water from the club. Through his kindness and his ready hugs, he begins to belong. People work together to make him a permanent place in the camp, a bed, an outdoor home. He is fed and cared for. One day when the police are present, this man goes to offer a conciliatory hug to one of the policemen and is arrested. At this point, it comes to light that he had actually escaped a psychiatric ward and he is promptly returned to a confined cell on the other side of Berlin. And here is the magic: The protest shifts tracks and fights for him to be released. The gay club owner offers him a permanent work contract and the residents acquire and renovate an apartment for him in the housing estate so that he has an address (the conditions for his release given by the psychiatric ward). This is no longer about common needs, this is a community willing to fight for the individual needs of those who belong. Not a belonging based on sameness, but on humanity. It breaks me.
Not a belonging based on sameness, but on humanity.
Johann Hari wonders at the end of the story: how many of us, if the worst happened and we became homeless or incarcerated, would have a whole community fight for us? I don’t know. I don’t think I would. Perhaps there would be a circulating Facebook post, signatures, potentially some crowdfunding for legal aid? I don’t know. You see, I have built a life that seems so safe that I could never imagine needing a whole community to have my back. My neighbours have built such a life, my friends and family too. And all has felt so safe for so long in my privileged and gloriously independent existence. However, I think the current political climate is making all of us aware of our vulnerability. The vulnerability of unbelonging, which only becomes apparent when the illusion of certainty and permanence falls away. But the risk is that we rush to solve this vulnerability in the most comfortable of ways. I have been to many beautiful gatherings of many beautiful people over the years. I have had experiences of expansion and connection and of joy and euphoria amongst truly awe-inspiring people, however, something has always been missing: people who are not like me. True belonging requires difference and diversity. I have known this in my lived experience since I was a little girl, but it has only filtered its way up to my conscious mind in more recent months.
something has always been missing: people who are not like me.
When I was 7 years old, my family started going to an English speaking church in Wiesbaden, Germany. My British parents, by now in Germany for 4 years realised they did not have the energy to integrate into German culture as fully as they had done during their time in Italy. They were tired of trying to adapt and fit in. So as a 7 year old, I began to experience an unusual form of belonging: I became a member of an exceptionally heterogeneous group of people - from different countries, different cultures, different political persuasions, different temperaments, different views - but we needed each other because of our commonality. We did not belong fully to the overculture and we all spoke most freely in English, we were “other”. Even though it was a church and our gathering was a Sunday worship, religion was not the only glue that held us together, many belonged for social reasons rather than religious ones. But our interactions were informed by religion - both in shadow and in light. The light was in the values that bound everyone together: Kindness, generosity, service, togetherness. The shadow to my mind in the fractions who decided that certain behaviours were more sinful than others and that they needed to be rejected more strongly. But even there I learned something incredibly valuable: these heated disagreements did not lead to a breakdown in belonging. Ultimately the need to belong to each other was always greater than the need to divide and the desire to exist solely in sameness. This experience and that in Hari’s tale of the Kotti & Co protest camp highlight something that should be obvious: home is not a gathering of like-minded people, home is a tribe of difference, disagreement, compromise, commitment, graciousness, dare I say love. But the way we live has given us such vast amounts of choice about who we spend our time with, that we have been able to build our tribes around sameness. When we feel lonely, no longer do we need to find ways to get along with the people that live on our streets, instead we can find people online and a little further away who think/dress/look/talk the same way as us, who do not challenge our worldviews. Just like in our Facebook feeds. (I will not write here about how this results in incredibly dangerous us-them thinking and how vulnerable it leaves us all to being manipulated and misled - that will need its own post and has also been covered well by others.)
"The opposite of Othering is not “saming”, it is belonging. And belonging does not insist that we are all the same. It means we recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people." John A Powell
What I would like to figure out with others who are willing to approach this with me, in a way that is grounded in curiosity alongside compassion, is this: is it possible to learn, then practice, then experientially teach this kind of belonging without the need to “other” anyone else, without the need to fight against another group (such as the residents of Kotti against those who were evicting them) or define our identity in opposition to another group (such as those in the English speaking church members versus the German-speaking society)? Can people be fully themselves in a group of other people being fully themselves and belong to each other without “othering” being the vehicle? From my work as a therapist and group facilitator, I have an inkling that the kind of universal human themes that bring people to the therapy room - psychological suffering, grief, depression, anxiety, meaninglessness, loneliness, trauma - could be part of the answer. They are experienced across all divisions. Imagine truly knowing that that person on the other side of a heated political rift, felt the same anguish and grief and joy as you (even if in different circumstances), imagine finding this common ground via conversation and empathy, imagine receiving the same in return. It does not mean agreeing with their views, it means refusing to dehumanise them or reduce them to those views. Opening up to the possibility of uniting around themes that in their very nature cannot exclude anyone. What would our world look like if we learned how to do this?
Jo Byron-Russell is the founder of Gather, a psychotherapist in private practice, a counselling tutor, a mother, a wife, a human, a blessed collection of cells that are currently cooperating.