The Gift of Otherness

Joseph Conrad, a Polish writer who wrote in English and lived in England, summarized beautifully what I also feel to be the role of an artist:

 “The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition — and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”

I left Poland, my native country, three years ago, and to all intents and purposes it looks like I will never live there again. For now, my adopted country is Switzerland. But when you leave your country, it always stays with you: there is a layer if your psyche which is forever connected to your homeland. I have never been the kind of expat who tries to uphold the external ways or traditions of their native land. Speaking frankly, the outer vestiges of Polishness have never been that appealing to me. You have these in every country: the chocolate and cheese of Switzerland, the pierogi of Poland, the American hamburger, etc. I have never attended the Polish Mass in Zurich, as so many other immigrants do. But when I am back in Poland, I immediately notice all the unique things that make my heart flutter. I would ride in a car and look at curbs and lawns and think that they look so unmistakably Polish. I would gaze at railway embankments and thing the same thing. I would walk along Kanonicza street in Krakow and catch a glimpse of the Wawel Castle with a lump in my throat. Yes, where you come from forever stays in your blood.


The Wawel castle as seen from Kanonicza street (via Wikipedia)

I have been thinking a lot recently what being Polish means to me. I have come up with two qualities that I associate with the deeper layer of being Polish:

  1. Martyrology, heroism and fight for freedom

You may have heard of the partitioning of Poland and the fact that it was wiped off of the map of Europe between the years 1795 and 1918. The first lines of the Polish national anthem go: “Poland has not perished as long as we are still alive. What the alien power has seized from us, we shall recapture with a sabre.” The alien armies of Germany and Russia invaded us again in 1939. In 1945 communism was forced upon us. But the spirits were never crushed and a string of equally hopeless and heroic uprisings were proof of that. We were the first country in Eastern Europe where communism collapsed, which was achieved by a gentle revolution without the unnecessary bloodshed.

On the negative side, victimhood and the feeling of being wronged is still strong, especially among the nationalist right wingers. Forgetting and letting go is something they find extremely difficult.

2. Cultural wars

We are and always have been a deeply divided society. We are always on the barricades fighting each other. To be honest, one of the reasons why I found Switzerland so appealing is that it is a civilized culture of consensus. Disagreements are welcome because they fuel dialogue and compromise. But we, the Poles, are always extremely passionate when we defend our cause. Right now in my home country, there is a cultural war between the progressive, tolerant, open-minded, feminist, pro-gay group and their opposite conservative Catholic, often misogynistic, homophobic or anti-Semitic opposing side. Yes, I realize I am making a crude distinction for the sake of simplicity and that I am clearly showing who I side with. The language of civilized dialogue is completely lost between the two sides of the barricade.


March of Equality, Krakow

I realize that similar cultural wars are going on in many places in the world. Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Polish reporter, journalist and traveler, saw the encounter with the Other as the most important challenge for the 21st century. The idea of Otherness comes from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Through a loving encounter with the Other, we realize we all have a fragment of otherness in ourselves. Kapuscinski wrote about the need to overcome the warlike chaos and tumult and opening ourselves to the meeting of the Other’s distinct uniqueness. Seeking dialogue and understanding in relation to the Other was also a theme of Martin Buber’s beautiful book I and Thou, in which he wrote:

 “Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other….
Secretly and bashfully he watches for a YES which allows him to be and which can come to him only from one human person to another.”

All of these thoughts have been coming to me ever since the planet Mars began its retrograde movement in Libra. There are many themes associated with the planet of war going backwards in the sign of peace, diplomacy and partnership. I have been thinking how the warlike mentality still feeds the minds of those living in the eastern part of Europe. Peace comes more easily in a country which has never known war (I am speaking of Switzerland). In my final words I feel I need to mention Ukraine with the central symbolism of the Maidan, i.e. the central square in Kiev:

“What does it mean to come to the Maidan? The square is located close to some of the major buildings of government, and is now a traditional site of protest. Interestingly, the word ‘maidan’ exists in Ukrainian but not in Russian, but even people speaking Russian use it because of its special implications. In origin it is just the Arabic word for ‘square,’ a public place. But a ‘maidan’ now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word ‘agora’ means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society.”

Timothy Snyder, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine,” The New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014

Perhaps with Mars going retrograde in Libra, we should go back to the ancient idea of Agora as a place where Otherness was welcome and embraced in fruitful debate.


The Agora in Athens

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31 Responses to The Gift of Otherness

  1. AB says:

    Each time I look at your linkage of events and stars and I think we live on different planets, very intriguing 🙂 thank you for bringing this completely left of the field perspective to me 🙂 let the stars be with you 🙂


  2. The concept of Otherness is born in us – perhaps the Original Sin of the Garden in which the knowledge of good and evil arose. Duality is always the basis of alienation and linked directly to the thinking mind – in contrast to the wisdom of the heart. I know what you mean about ‘native land’. My home will always be that small area of the US in which I was raised.


    • I also think that duality and Otherness are linked inextricably together with our sense of separate identity, which we acquired because of the Original Sin. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, it is very much appreciated.


  3. ptero9 says:

    Switzerland interests me so much because of its ability to stay out of wars. I wonder what it’s like there and how the culture remains so stable, if that’s even an accurate way to describe it.

    I do agree with you that the homeland attachment stays with us, even or especially when we are able to leave it behind.

    Of course, the unknown people in the tv series Lost are called “others.” I suspect that otherness is amplified the more we are strangers to ourselves.


    • Amen to the last sentence and thanks for bringing in Lost again. About Switzerland, it does seem so unbelievably rooted and stable. You would have to drop by for a visit and see it for yourself! 🙂 On Mar 12, 2014 5:07 PM, “symbolreader” wrote:



  4. Lehua says:

    As always your posts are synchronistic & intuitively timed for me. I’m deep into untangling the cultural & ancestral bonds that do not serve me well. But being a third generation (& of mixed ethnicity) child, I’ve had trouble discovering much about my Polish ancestry. Your post has truly enlightened me. As I continue encountering & shedding the blockages, I’ll be coming back to read your post again and again.

    Thank you!


    • Oh, this is so wonderful to hear. I did not suspect you had some Polish blood. I love what you said about shedding the blockages of our ancestry and I can honestly say I still have not managed that. But I’m doing a lot of thinking these days accompanied by some serious Saturn transits. Thank you!


  5. renatembell says:

    I have been told (whether it is true or not) that my father has reincarnated in Poland. (It wouldn’t surprise me if it is true. He spoke often of his Polish friends!) If it is true, then he has ventured from this former life of hardship in Romania, through Germany immediately following the end of WWII to America where he had to face the societal divide (similar to what you describe happening in your own country which occurs here as well). It seems he will be experiencing these collisions of opposition in Poland, too (if he is actually there)! Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your feelings about how our hearts somehow remain rooted in our homeland. Oddly, I feel the same between the States here in the US. I lived in Florida for almost 13 years, and every time I drive down for a visit, I literally get teary-eyed and feel love in my heart when I see the “Welcome to Florida” sign. I always expect to hear an inner voice say, “Time to move back”, but it never happens. Thank you, and big hug


    • Dear Renate, thank you for this sweet and thoughtful comment. It comforts me that we have such similar sensitivities about the subject. How interesting about your father: you know that I’m very open to this kind of thing. Big hug to you as well!


  6. Don says:

    I agree with you Monika. One’s homeland stays with you in spite of where you may go. I think we are profoundly shaped in ways we don’t fully understand by the land we grow up in. I know for instance that the wide African skies and the Savannah veld has made a deep imprint on my life. I can go on with other descriptions, but i won’t bore you, accept to say that I know that if I were to go somewhere else there will always be a part of me that will remain African. I really do admire all those, people like yourself, who leave their homeland to live elsewhere. It’s a pretty courageous thing to do.


    • How wonderful that people are talking about their native countries in the comment section. I agree that we do not fully understand how we are shaped by the land we come from.
      I’m not sure I deserve your admiration. I have a strong need for adventure and a lot of pioneering spirit. I had always wanted to explore new lands.


  7. Amy Campion says:

    Thank you for a wonderful post, I enjoyed the beautiful quotes and the elegant tying together of diverse ideas. I am musing upon the idea of “otherness” linked to duality… perhaps to integrate the “other” we might start by acknowledging diversity and multuplicity? There are many others, not simply one, just as there are many aspects to ourselves, which we can see and know reflected in the array of others… To know that we each have infinite aspects of ourselves may help us to accept the infinite others. Ultimately, that we are all on and the same.

    Perhaps a perspective such as this is easier to come to given my own background, rather than reflecting upon a home and what I wish to keep or discard, as the grandchild of refugees (fleeing post WW2 Eastern Europe) I have never known where that “home” really is. I have a deep love on the land I was born in, but some part of me will always feel like a trespasser here; yet there is no “home” to go back to – I do not speak the language and have been raised to be “integrated”, losing much of the custom and psychology that would define a nationality. On one level, I long for something lost I have never known, on another, I embrace a life full of possibility, of adventure, of connectivity. Or, as you pointed out and so eloquently expressed by Conrad “the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation — and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity — the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.”


    • Dear Amy, thank for such a wonderful and thoughtful comment with so many layers of meaning. I do agree the Other is diverse and comes in multiplicity. Thank you also for sharing your personal story.


  8. I wonder if there is a way to send this post to all leaders everywhere in the world?
    The personal aspects of this article are like tonglen, but in a maturing humanity way. In other words, the personal feelings don’t stay personal for long but expand to the shared human experience in some regard. Then you followed the energetic trail to Mars in Libra, which is the same energy sparked in the musings of Conrad. Beautiful and thought-full post, Monika. Thank you!


  9. Casey says:

    Hmmm…I’ll have to come back and write more later.

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    As I mentioned, while I was American born, my great-grandparents came from Poland. I will have to make a post of my pictures that were taken when we went to Poland when I was 10 with my two older sisters and grandmother. I enjoyed my time there a great deal.

    I’m pretty sure we toured Wawel Castle when we were in Krakow. We visited castles and churches and Auschwitz. I never forgot my visit to Poland. Good memories…


  10. “But a ‘maidan’ now means in Ukrainian what the Greek word ‘agora’ means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, to speak, and to create a political society.”
    I like the deliberateness, as written above, and I’ve come to some similar conclusions as you about this transit, Mars Rx in Libra, and peacefulness. I am unaware of having Polish roots, myself, but I am aware of consciousness we share. My grandmother is an Italian immigrant in the U.S.. She is still alive, and she would often tell me about having Polish friends in her younger years.
    Perhaps it’s the happenstance in conjunction with the deliberateness that makes for a new societal movement. There’s definitely a point were deliberateness gains momentum, as if everyone all of a sudden realizes why they ended up “on the same planet” in the first place. Thank you for letting me share my thoughts! & Thank you for sharing yours!


  11. Pingback: 10 year old me in Poland, summer of 1980 | The Sprightly Writer

  12. shoe1000 says:

    What I gleaned from your work here is the connection to our history, however it manifests and however unconscious it is, can never be replaced. To me this sounds like this information, this feeling, comes from what Jung called the collective unconscious. When I walk the streets of my childhood, it is not the street that is familiar to me, it is the memory of the street that comes to conscious, through serendipity, synchronicity or however it comes to me. It is in my body that I sense it.
    That tells me that it is from a source I cannot imagine as it is from a place in me that I cant recall intellectually. If it is not a thought, then what is it?
    As I finish here I realize that I dont understand it with my mind. I sense and trust it with my body.


  13. Hi Monika,
    I read this post some time ago when I was in a Neptunian “fog”. Now I am back to comment. I have stated before that I know very little about Poland the country or the culture. I am multicultural but Poland is the only place that I have ancestors from both sides of my family, You mentioned expats and this type of status interests me. How does an expat differ from an immigrant?
    I do strongly grasp your emotional ties to your birth country. Having moved around so much as a child, I have similar longings for some of the places of my youth.

    In fact, I am taking some inspiration from you and this post as I prepare a post about my heritage. Thank you for sharing a personal story here in classic Symbolreader style, rich in imagery, symbolism, culture, heart, and spirit.


    • Dear Linda, thank you for your compliments about my classic style, that is so sweet. I’m glad to see you back in the community. I’ve got much less time for blogging now, which is a pity.
      I think an expat and an immigrant are hard to distinguish. I think an expat is someone whose stay in a foreign country has an expiration date. I’m not sure, to be honest.


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