I’ve been able to spend some time with the Selgae community. The families are nomadic, migrating to specific basecamps at designated moments. This process is loosely structured and seemingly arbitrary, yet location within the confines of the larger camp is indicative of an individual’s status and degree of connectivity to their family and larger tribe. When a family first migrates to the larger camp, a series of rituals takes place to initiate them into the culture and welcome them. The body of chiefs delivers their garments on the eve of the ritual and then invites them to partake in their first ceremony. Ceremonies are highly anticipated and also mark one of the few circumstances in which the tribe interacts with outsiders and engages in combat. Members of the tribe prepare for combat their entire lives, and they are celebrated for this feat.
That’s us—the Selgae tribe, or Eagles spelled backwards. This is an exercise of trying to distance yourself from your hardwired reality. Freshman year, I read an article from an anthropology journal titled “Body Rituals of the Nacirema”– or “Americans” spelled backwards. The author described our customs using a lot of the academic jargon often implemented to explain what we do not understand. It was like getting an aerial view of my own life. As I read it, I realized that taking a step–or a couple of strides–away from myself can be helpful and humbling. “Othering” myself stresses a distance that disorients and confuses but also brings me clarity. I become hyper-aware of the ways I use my own life as the benchmark by which I make judgments on the lives of others.
We are taught to apprehend from where we stand. In attempts to dissect systemic violence and what appear to be capricious calamities, we are handed a mirror and a journal and are told to “feel for,” “have compassion with,” and “identify with.” Understanding comes from “putting yourself in their shoes” or “thinking about how this could’ve been you.” Is this is the best practice of empathy? To find ways to bring everything back to myself? Can I only validate others’ reality as long as it’s applicable to my own life? What if I have never experienced anything close to what someone else is going through—do I just stop there?
I worry that in our efforts to be active members of any human community, we look to our own experience but then often stop short. It’s healthy to “disrupt the delusion that we’re permanent and at the center of the universe,” and lately I’ve become hyper-aware of all the narcissistic activism that surrounds us. Putting a filter on your profile picture to show that you care is noble but also dangerous. What happens after that? Using human tragedy to enhance a public aesthetic only pushes individual agendas. How can our reactions face inwards when we are supposed to be made of the same fabric and go outside of ourselves? The fact that people have been unjustly and brutally killed matters for what it is, not because it could’ve also happened to us or because we took a picture at the Eiffel Tower when we were 12.
I have been trying to learn to inhabit what I do not understand as well as I what I do, by realizing the value in a life, a body, or an ideology, even if it feels foreign or unfamiliar. When we see clashes in religious ideology, the answer is not that other human tribes become more like us– “more objective” or “less ignorant”—but that we try to view them as equally real. The anthropologist who wrote Nacirema believes that “if all of the logically possible combinations of behavior have not been found somewhere in the world, he is apt to suspect that they must be present in some yet undescribed tribe.” The whole point of the piece is to realize that our body rituals are no less outrageous than that of another far away tribe, and in the end we are really not that different. So the “rest of the world’s problems” aren’t just important in the way that they involve us but in that they will continue to unfold despite us, and we can contribute to some sort of betterment.
Maybe if we modestly accept that we are just an othered human tribe, we will move away from the center of the universe and find meaning in its periphery. We must first acknowledge that differences in human-lived experiences are real before we understand how most differences that we impose on others are simply imagined.
Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Graphics