Otherness and Empathy

All my life, I have been the other.

How to explain my sense of “otherness”?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary says otherness is “the quality of being different or unusual.”

Sociologists describe otherness as a binary, an us vs them arrangement where group membership is determined by shared traits. Those with traits in common are a part of us. And we don’t like them.

I have always been a them.

The daughter born over a decade after the other children, just as the marriage was dissolving.

The girl in school whose family lived so far from the rest of town that she had no telephone, had to haul water, and disappeared completely from the social network during the summer breaks.

As an adult, my sense of otherness persists.

I was the much-older student returning to school in a program full of brilliant young minds fresh from undergrad.

I was the blue-collar kid–first to earn a 4-year degree in my immediate family–surrounded by the children of doctors, lawyers, and scholars.

I was the medievalist among a group of scholars who felt that material was quaint.

I was the manuscript enthusiast in a program that preferred high theorists.

I am the avid reader in a world that values reading less and less.

I am the genre literature reader and writer in a world that prefers only serious capital-L literature, thank you very much.

I’m the 40-something lesbian with no children working with mostly older women. All of my co-workers are straight, have kids and/or grandkids, and have lived in this community for at least a decade. I’m the newcomer to town, full of new ideas, and rocking the boat.

I feel as though my entire life has been spent rocking the boat.

No one wants the boat to rock.

At times, I feel guilty for corrupting my spouse’s life with my otherness.

She’s the daughter of upper-middle-class parents. The product of a stable marriage and a family that was economically secure. A child of the suburbs. Someone most would call “normal.”

The phrase she hears me say most often is, “I love you.”

The phrase I probably say second most often is, “Do you think I’m weird?”

My otherness terrifies me.

I flaunt my otherness.

It’s a mark of shame to rival Hester Prynne’s.

It’s a badge of honor, a war wound of being human.

Why does my otherness matter?

Because it allows me to see the privileges I have. It shows me how to connect with my fellow humans, despite what separates us.

My otherness is a gift granting me empathy.

It is a curse leaving me to puzzle over why the them in power (read straight, white people) are so damned clueless.

The other. How do you bear your otherness?

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