Thursday, November 15, 2007

De-centering the self: Michael Dyson

One of my favorite pomo expressions is: de-centering the self. It's one I've spent a lot of time contemplating. Most of us live in our own bubbles of comfort, culture and "correct" thinking. We interpret the world through the lens given to us by our parents, our race, our socio-economic backgrounds, our Englishes, our educations, our faith traditions (or lack of them), our gender, our topo-geographic localities, our relationships, our pains, our abuses, our joys... all of these wrapped together create us, shape how we understand the world and each other. As we become competent in our worlds, we gain speed at navigating the requirements (passing tests, earning degrees, getting jobs, managing money, initiating relationships, respecting the tax laws, obeying the rules of the road, shopping, dressing up and down and when, showing respect and disrespect including knowing when and how to do each, having sex, managing the level of technology your world affords and/or requires... and so on).

One of the reasons going to a foreign country is so often recommended as an "expanding" experience is that in deliberately leaving behind what we know, we are suddenly de-centered. The way we know the world is no longer "normative" but in many cases, an impediment to successful living. For instance, my history degree didn't help me bake bread or wash my clothes by hand in Morocco. I was seen as a flawed married woman without the necessary skills, not as a highly educated "prepared for adult life" individual.

What I took for granted (knowing the price of postage, counting change, finding a store open at hours you expect, locating the bus line, weighing vegetables, lighting a stove, hooking up a telephone, daylight hours, flavors, words, etiquette, smells, the shapes of buildings, toilet flushes) suddenly cost me energy. All day long I was bombarded by ineptitude... my own.

It's not uncommon to need naps when you move to a new country. It's also perfectly normal to develop irrational fears and judgments: What if I get lost downtown? How will I find the right bus? Why does that man look me in the eye? Didn't she just snub me? Why do they do it like *that* when it would be so much easier to do it like *this*?

The advice to people who face culture shock (or culture stress, as it is more commonly called now) is to let go of the old expectations. The quicker someone immerses self into this new reality, the faster she becomes happy. The more language a person has, the more fluency in all aspects of foreign living. Over time, the expatriate not only learns that there are other ways to successfully live on the planet, in some cases, the new ways become prized as more valuable than the formerly most comfortable ways.

What is really remarkable about living abroad is that you have no option but to recognize that your way is not the only way. Hearing about a foreign way of life is no approximation for how it actually feels to live it. When your senses are overwhelmed, you are obligated to either have a breakdown or figure it out. You must yield to the reality that there are multiple ways to live that give people the things we all crave: love, belonging and competence.

Last night, Jon and I attended a lecture given by Dr. Michael Dyson. We've heard him before. He's what is known as a "public intellectual, teacher and cultural critic." Dyson speaks from his personal space of being black, of interpreting and representing what are black issues today and he does so in an almost Robin Williams-esque style (freely flying between ebonics, black speak, white speak, intellectual-ese and rap).

We arrived at Xavier about five minutes before the start of the lecture. The hall was already filled with audience members... virtually all black. It hit me. I'm used to Xavier being white with a smattering of other ethnicities. Yet last night, Jon and I found two seats smooshed in the middle of the hall surrounded by blacks. I was not troubled. I was aware. This must be how it feels all the time in the suburbs for blacks. When a black family joins our homeschooling co-op, they know that their kids' friends will all be white, that they will be the only blacks in the room much of the time.

Last night, I felt it. Not just that I was white-skinned, but culturally white. When Dyson would talk about the way their "mammas and daddies" raised them, he talked about teaching kids that they have to rise up and overcome obstacles. He talked about two languages: the ebonics of the home and the standard English of the outside world. He quoted Marvin Gaye and the Temptations and found the audience finishing his sentences. He rapped like Jay-Z and the college kids rapped with him. Jon and I laughed our heads off with the crowd, but we were not a part of it. We had entered that other world where the assumptions I have mean little to the gathered.

It was a lot like visiting a foreign country.... only different in one important way. When I go abroad, I'm deliberately choosing to place myself in the mode of "learner." I know I will not "know" how to be, do, talk, live. I choose to be open to learning. When I'm in my country, I don't want that experience thrust on me. I expect to feel competent, at ease. Last night, I was reminded again of how important it is to deliberately seek to be out of my comfort zone, to listen to the points of view of those who even see me as a threat, an enemy or an impediment to their competence and success in the larger culture. In other words, I realized that for blacks, they spend a lot more energy than I do accommodating the largely white culture I come from... every day. I dipped into it for about three hours one night.

I don't know how else we ever get to that place where we know and honor each other's experiences unless we de-center the self regularly: like jogging, like eating right, like holding back bad words, like de-cluttering the house, like taking medicine or vitamins. Self-discipline to give up my right to be comfortable and right.


Kansas Bob said...

For some reason your post reminded me of Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves movie where he, out of necessity, decentered and wound up embracing Native American culture.

Not many of us really get more than a glimpse of a different lifestyle and culture. Your time abroad seems to have been a true blessing Julie. Ann and I are entering the world of disability and I am amazed at how it is impacting me.. de-centering seems to be an understatement :)

julieunplugged said...

That world of disability is most certainly its own culture. And to enter it is to learn a whole new way of life.

I hope you write about it so I can learn through you what I don't know (and probably the able don't *want* to know due to fear).

Drew said...

I too like that sentiment, but I think that the notion of decentering is not as much postmodern as it is mystical. It is prevalent in Christians spirituality as it is in Buddhist practice.

One expression that I learned from Prof. Diogenes Allen is "Love is the otherness of things". That is, to love, we have to relate to that other person in a way that allows them to be themselves fully and where we do not impose our own desires and values on them. he then relates this to Simone Weil's understanding of the love of God and affliction. God allows us to exist fully as ourselves, but conditions reality to sustain it. Not in a deterministic way, but in the same way that gravity keeps you from flying off the surface of the earth.

Weil also relates this to her interesting take on school studies. She views solving a mathematical problem as a spiritual exercise. Because you have to assent to the problem in a way that the problem itself is not contingent on your own sense of personality, emotion, cognition, etc. you have to de-center yourself in order to solve it. This, to her, is the heart of her notion of attention without which any knowledge of God is impossible.

In my view, doctrine needs to function in the same way. Doctrine needs to assent to God and be subject to change, and what I see more often than not is that doctrine becomes a reified medium for God that, following McLuhan, becomes the message of God itself. This I call idolatry.

julieunplugged said...

Drew, truly remarkable comments. The term "de-centering of self" came to me through postmodernist writings. The idea of losing the self or othering is certainly a huge part of spirituality and multiple spiritual paths/disciplines. Sometimes we hear things newly when they come through other means and for me, that's what postmodernism did - it helped me understand what "othering" is all about. It's not the same as "helping" or even "serving."

Othering, otherliness really is about not imposing ourselves on the other. What a challenge!

Thanks for this.

Ampersand said...

I truly like de-centering. Not to minimize it as a discipline, and an intentional one at that, but I also wonder if some of us are more inclined to it than others. It makes me feel alive.

And Drew, your wonderful comments make realize perhaps why it makes me feel so alive. When I love others, the way you described, as they are, with no expectations of them to conform to my desires, I feel connected to everyone and everything.

KB, I'm sorry that you are de-centering so radically...know that my heart is with you and your dear wife. Methinks, due to my brewing health issues, that my dh and I are headed down a similar path, but at what point I don't know. I say this just to let you know that I have glimpses of what you must be going through. Grace to you.

carrie said...

Dropped into catch up and loved this post. It makes me want to move to another country for awhile since I've had little experience with this. I know my kids have had little practice with "decentering." Except for Thomas, maybe who has spent at least some time in other cultures having to adapt to food, customs, and routines not his own.

In some ways the move toward Catholicism has been one of stepping outside of my comfort zone and being in the minority, not knowing the "language," culture, and even history like the "natives." I've had to try to see everything through new eyes.

Of course, this doesn't compare to what Kansas Bob is experiencing. My experience is something of my own making and I could pull out any time. Choosing to de-center is great and requires discipline. But being in a situation you can't necessarily change must be exhausting.

And Drew, I agree de-centering has a long association with spiritual exercise. Good thoughts.

Kansas Bob said...

I love this Drew..

"That is, to love, we have to relate to that other person in a way that allows them to be themselves fully and where we do not impose our own desires and values on them."

..too often we want to love on our own terms.. bringing the best out of someone sounds a lot like what love should be.

Thanks to you all for your responses to my comment about our decentering experience with disability. I posted a bit about it today.. maybe more to come when I get some perspective on it.

Drew said...

Julie, your distinction between helping and othering rung the bell with Levinas. I distinctly remember struggling through his work Otherwise Than Being and remembering, "I really have no clue what he was talking all, but somehow it must be important". I still have yet to go back to it but someday I will when I have the fortitude.

William Stacey Johnson's little book on Barth and Postmodernism is a good one to explore this topic as well. Not easy, but not written like a postmodern. He connects the Trinity with the notion of a de-centered center and the way he does it is very fruitful I think becuase it leaves room for the revelation of God in our midst, but still allows for enough mystery to hold sway that we are always called into question when we ourselves question God. Some find that scary, I find it liberating.


Celal Birader said...

Hi folks... I have lived in 4 different countries, worked in 3 of them and as a result know 3 different languages fluently.

I suppose now i have a word for the kind of life i have led : "de-centered". That's good. It gives me a conceptual hook on which to hang my thinking.

When i do re-connect with old friends and acquaintances who have remained roughly in the same place or culture all their lives it does become very striking to me how much they have had only one type of experience whereas i have had more. Yet, I'm not sure i would call these different cultural experiences (which is our present topic) different dimensions of any sort.

On a fundamental level i really don't see myself as having, as a result of my life experiences reached, some higher level of maturity or some higher level of anything, really. And, i wouldn't say that i have wasted those experiences in that i have been totally immersed in each and every one of them. I'm only thinkin' that perhaps all this is a bit over-rated and i think i'm speaking with authority here.

Now, if you want to talk about 'love' that's fair and i think kansas bob is onto something here and i will have to read his other post. But, you don't need to move to another country, or learn about afro-american sub-culture etc. I think the way love works in de-centering the person is that the person only concerns himself/herself with the welfare of the other person which is the truest and highest definition of love.

It is a denial of self, definitely, and maybe this is what some of you are saying about the 'international experience' whereby one is made to feel inadequate etc. Yet, one can still feel inadequate and still not be de-centered. Are you with me? Conversely, i think it is also possible that one is in a totally familiar environment and yet be truly de-centered. Do you see what i'm getting at ? Anyway, i'll leave it here for now.

SusansPlace said...

Provocative post, Julie. I was challenged while reading your thoughts and the thoughts of others here. I have experienced a bit "decentering" in the past 8 months during my marital separation and now again, as we come back together. Drew's definition of "love" is a challenge when applied to those closest to us...but I do think the challenge is a good one.