A few days ago I was sitting in my local park in Berlin, underneath the oak tree. All of a sudden I overheard a man’s voice, speaking English:
“You are your presence in the world. There is no single world in which everyone is present”
The gift of these words connected immediately with a thought I often kick idly around (which isn’t the same as thinking it through):
“Although we talk about multiculturalism, diversity and pluralism, we’re only at the outer edge of beginning truly to learn how to understand, accept and coexist with people who are radically other than ourselves.”
My own culture’s bottom line is monoculture. One reality, one world, one god. One wheat variety, one coffee franchise. I suffer from a manic hypersensitivity to how deeply this assumption of singularity – our way or the highway – is ingrained in so much of what I read, in normal perceptions and beliefs as to what’s true and real, in the texture of people’s everyday behaviour and attitudes. Diversity and multiculturalism in this context feel like a shallow, unsatisfying sop; a bit of local colour to jazz up the singularity and sell it to different niche markets, a way of fending off any deep, discomfiting consideration of what they actually imply. Discomfiting, because if you follow diversity to its logical limits, the assumption of singularity will start to unravel.
In the course of my life so far, I’ve met people who talk with angels, people who see nature spirits, people for whom Jesus Christ is a palpable presence, dedicated scientific rationalists, people to whom the world is pure lyric poetry, people who to all intents and purposes are living in the 1940s. According to the logic of monoculture, there is no way, when you get down to the bottom line, that all these realities can be real. So the standard response is to pick one claim to reality – it’ll most likely be scientific rationalism or Jesus Christ – and discount the rest of the list as forms of mental delusion or moral aberration. You’ll observe that to sharpen my point, my examples veer deliberately into the twilight zone, with some that even liberal-minded folk would be likely to exclude from the boundaries of what’s acceptable as real.
I don’t buy the standard response – I don’t have enough certainty about how this universe works to be confident about discounting what for others is real (including G*d), just because my experience is otherwise. But inwardly I struggle hard with believing in multiple realities. There is constant friction between the evidence of my experience, and the extent to which I’m colonised by default monocultural thinking. All this obsesses me precisely because I’m not a naturally tolerant person, so for me to exercise tolerance at all requires practice, conscious effort, the feeling of actually having to wake up and pay attention to what’s in my heart and under my nose. There are also the tough spots – fgm, military pride – where my capacity for tolerance hits up against my own encultured ethical boundaries and, because I won’t surrender to the standard response, and nor do I have enough acuity and awareness to think beyond the obvious, I flounder.
Listening to the words in the park, though, gave me a different insight into my kicked-around thought. Multiple worlds and realities are (and so is a shared, single world), but the friction – the idea of multiple realities as a source of tension, or a problem that needs some solution – is my own creation. Be effortlessly with the realities that are, let go of them in the form of a problem.
I love it, but I’m not there yet.