#iSTANDfor: Finding The Other in Oneself

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By Pico Iyer

Forty-two years of constantly criss-crossing the globe have persuaded me that the central cause that moves and guides me is just the simple business of finding the Other in oneself, and finding oneself in the Other. Of course we are suffering through any number of other problems, from climate change to terrorism, from xenophobia to inequalities of resources. But deep down the source of all these lies only in our need to think of differences when we could be thinking of commonalities.

From afar, I’ve found, I hear the words “Syria” or “Iran” or “Cuba” and see in my mind’s eye only what is different in those places from the world I know: their governments, their languages, their customs and religions. The minute I arrive in one of them, I’m reminded that almost every local I meet has at least as much in common with me as apart: he’s worrying about the economy, fretting about how to give his children shelter and a good education, complaining about the government. This isn’t to say we’re all thinking along the same lines—in many ways, our shrinking world has intensified (and highlighted) the distances between us; it’s just to suggest that it’s the images and ideas we carry in our heads that are often at least as pernicious and divisive as any reality.

For forty-two years now I’ve also been talking and traveling with the XIVth Dalai Lama, and I’m always impressed that he, as the world’s most prominent Buddhist, urges people in the West not to become Buddhist, but to stay within their own traditions, where the risk of misunderstanding is lowest. Though the leader of Tibet, he prays every day for the “Chinese brothers and sisters” who have occupied his homeland for more than half a century and insists that anything that harms China can only harm Tibet, and vice versa. And as one of the globe’s most respected religious figures, he nonetheless entitled his most recent major book Beyond Religion, as a way to point to the values and principles that can unite us even if we have no religion at all.

Part of what inspires me about this cause is that the potential for transformation lies entirely in ourselves, whoever we may be, and however rich or poor or dispossessed or powerless we may feel. It’s very hard to change the world, in my experience; but it’s never impossible to change the way we look at the world, and, in doing so, to effect a larger transformation. The man across the border and I are never a million miles apart.

So while I could point to many external social and environmental issues as urgent priorities, I think our first imperative may be to turn to the thinking within each one of us that can help us see anything—even ourselves—in a larger perspective. Define yourself in some way larger than your gender, your religion or your passport—define yourself perhaps by your passions—and suddenly you find that the word “Other” dissolves, and the one you saw as so-called “Other” may start to define himself differently as well.

Pico Iyer is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Art of StillnessThe Man Within My Head and (about his travels with the Dalai Lama), The Open Road.