Our Fear of the Stranger Starts with Our Fear of Ourselves

James Baldwin once wrote,

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.” (Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985)

As I get older, I’ve started to understand what Baldwin is getting at. Bit by bit, life becomes more complicated, and I discover all sorts of new and unanticipated subtle fears – fears for my children, fears for our family’s well being, fears for my community, country, and world, fears that I will lose integral aspects of myself as I get caught up in life’s propensity for busyness and productivity. The labels change with the seasons of life. One thing I’m learning is that these fears can start to turn me inward, moving me into a selfish “I’ll take care of my own” mindset, an insularity that makes me feel safer and more comfortable, but which increasingly distances me from things out in the world that I’ve often claimed to care about. It becomes all about the “provisional” self, as Baldwin puts it. My circle of concern begins to shrink, and I’m tempted to turn a blind eye to things that make life more complicated. I begin to live incurvatus in se, as Augustine once put it, that is, turned in on one’s self. In doing so, I lose proximity to who and what is “other,” and what used to be even vaguely familiar fades into the unknown. And so, in terrible irony, in my very attempts to overcome my subtle (and often unconscious) fears, I’m generating all sorts of new fears. It’s been crucial for me to be mindful of these tendencies, and to be surrounded by friends and other voices that keep me in check.

What most of us don’t acknowledge is that many of these fears that we experience are rooted deeply within us, and that if they aren’t engaged, it becomes nearly impossible for us to alter our fears of what’s “out there.” It is “the terror within,” in Baldwins’ words. Dr. Gregory Ellison, the creative pioneer of the Fearless Dialogues movement, takes his readers and workshop participants into the depth of this fear within us because he believes that it is almost impossible to truly see and hear those you encounter in the world if you have not truly seen yourself.

Ellison provides a taxonomy of four types of strangers – public, familiar, intimate, and the stranger within. Public strangers include everyone in society, those we are aware of but only at a distance as well as those we see only once or infrequently in public places. Familiar strangers are those that we see frequently but whom we do not know – the people in our office buildings, bus stops, grocery stories, local parks, and other common spaces, that we see often but never speak to. We gain extreme familiarity with familiar strangers, but we do not know them and rarely speak to them. Intimate strangers are often borne in the crucible of crisis – the nurse at your hospital bed, the stranger you cling to in a moment of danger. Their strangeness grants us a freedom to express ourselves in a way we might not with those who know us well.

Fourthly and finally, there are the strangers within. These strangers lie deeply within us whispering doubt, cynicism, fright. These strangers repeat to us what we “ought” to be, pushing us away from authentic exploration and expression of ourselves. These strangers make it very difficult for us to see the public, familiar, and intimate strangers. Ellison describes these strangers within in this way:

“The city streets of our hearts bustle with endless foot traffic. Like Times Square, Trafalgar Square, and Tiananmen Square layered one atop the other, the world of the heart attracts untold tourists. These curious out-of-towners explore our inner landscape, posing before the monumental moments we hold most dear. We overhear their unknown tongues rumbling up from the deep or perhaps even shift our gaze to the visitors’ direction. But as phantoms their faces remain shadow-cast; a closer look reveals a throng of strangers standing suspiciously in darkness. Huddled around the id, they inflict terror and instill fright. We know not whence they came. Yet we fell their shadowed presence when we take a new job, strike out to foreign lands, or enter a crowded room of unfamiliar faces. If these feelings are left unchecked, when we move into uncharted regions, we may project our fears of the shadowed tourists onto the living faces before us. Therefore, we must befriend the strangers within, lest the unexamined and unchecked traffic of the heart breed anxiety toward the stranger and bleed hostility toward our neighbor.” (Ellison, Fearless Dialogues, p. 57)

For me, the starting point for addressing these strangers within and the fears they generate is to acknowledge that I am beautifully and wonderfully made, created and intimately known by God, and that despite the sin and brokenness of my flesh that wreaks such havoc, that I am at my inception “good” and whole. Such knowledge grants me the courage and wisdom to tell the truth about myself, to myself. The truth, I believe, will set us all free, and so I fear not the strangers within nor without.

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is so high that I cannot attain it…

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my thoughts. 
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting (Ps 139)


See here for a recent interview with Dr. Ellison, as well as links to his website and books for purchase: https://www.aijcast.com/episodes/2017/11/10/s3e06-gregory-c-ellison


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