We face profound challenges to the way of life we are used to – as a result of globalisation and technology in particular.  And we are reacting the way human-beings always react in this kind of situation: by trying to hold on to what we have got.

With valiant determination, we retreat, batten down the hatches and put up protective walls.  We look to recover our confidence, security and sense of control by preserving, restoring and purifying what we have.  And we have no reason to believe that this latest wave of conservatism, right-wing politics and bids for independence will be any more successful than any of the previous waves that have swept over empires, nations and other human institutions in the past. So is there a better way to respond to “the other” – be it as tangible as our immigrant neighbour or as nebulous as the future?

Since we can neither overcome the future nor outrun it
we will have to come out to it or be overrun by it.

The one thing we know for sure about the future is that it will keep on coming whether we are ready for it or not. Since we can neither overcome it nor outrun it, we will have to come out to it or be overrun by it. That means we will have to learn to do things differently when we are hard-wired to find patterns and stick to them (as Edward de Bono pointed out, that’s why you frequently can’t remember your daily drive home – you are on autopilot). How do we get out of our rut in order to adapt successfully to our new and ever-changing circumstances?

Worship of the Kings
The worship of the kings by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638)

6th January is a day that many people around the world and across the centuries reflect on the “Adoration of the Magi.”  This painting was the result of Peter Breugel the Younger’s reflections 400 years ago. Everything looks so traditionally “Christmassy” – everything so many are trying to preserve or recover. People are busy doing their thing – playing on the ice, getting in provisions, heading off for field sports or preparing for battle. Despite the exotic caravan, no-one seems to notice the monumental change that is happening in their midst – except a few in the distance, who look like they’ve been excluded. You have to step almost out of the scene altogether to find what the picture is really about, and the only ones who are doing that are outsiders (see the two dark faces in the bottom left corner). The first people who came to recognise Jesus as the king of the Jews were under-class shepherds (who some popular teaching at the time declared to be so inferior that you need feel no compunction to try to rescue them if they fell down a well) and oriental astrologers – in other words, economic, national and religious outsiders. Mary, Joseph and their baby Jesus were shortly to be all three of those themselves as refugees in Egypt.

In most languages, we tend to label foreigners as “strange” (xenos; étranger) or “outside” (buitelander; 外国人) or “distant” (fremd) – in other words, nothing to do with us. The Spanish “extranjero” is related to the Latin word for “banish” and shares a root with the English word “extraneous.” The terms “barbarian” and “gringo” both come from labelling the way other people speak as ‘gibberish.’ Not only is the foreigner nothing to do with us, but they talk nonsense and have nothing positive to offer us.

If any of us have anything to contribute, it is through our “otherness.”

But as a wonderful piece of graffiti in Cologne put it: “Wir sind Fremde – fast überall” (we are foreigners – almost everywhere). If any of us have anything to contribute, it is through our “otherness.” And if that is so, then we must engage with the “otherness” of others, instead of either trying to insulate ourselves against it or else beat it out of them.

The other calls us forward instead of backwards; it expands our imagination instead of leaving us to keep circling round the old well-worn paths; it opens our eyes to new possibilities; it offers hope. But we must have the courage and humility to wrestle with it instead of kidding ourselves we are better off without it.