Jan. 15, 2010: African story reminds us we each have a unique song, by Husch Hathorne

The “other” is an interesting concept in our community of Concordia.

Originally, in my white, heterosexual, physically-abled perspective, I conceptualized the “other” as some who didn’t fit that description — perhaps someone nonwhite in our largely white town, perhaps someone gay in our largely heterosexual town, maybe even someone physically or mentally challenged. But the person who drew my attention to the idea of an “other” in Concordia was someone not native to our soil.

They are the outsiders to our town. The new, the recently relocated, the Not-from-Here folks. The broader idea of the “other” is someone “not like us.”

By acknowledging that there is an “other,” we admit awareness of a core community in which we live, in which some are a part and some are not. The essence of any small town is the insulated, tightly knit community of its members — who by the nature of their inter-relatedness may be much happier than their city counterparts or more miserable than their small town counterparts, depending on real or perceived inclusion or exclusion.

When you are born into a small town, your community role is set for life by your socio-economic position. Your family name defines your potential and your economic/marital status seals the deal. This makes life for some of us a safe, comforting and thoroughly enjoyable experience. For others it can be a confining and at times narrow place to grow our dreams.

But dreams know no boundaries and many of our young people leave to pursue their hopes of greater opportunity through education and exposure to worlds where class and social status doesn’t define your place in the world.

How to change this? How to change a whole culture of exclusion? Concordia’s culture is described by some people as reserved, private, non-demonstrative and welcoming only upon proven community stature.

I recently received a forwarded email that told the story of an African tribe who upon welcoming newborn babies into their clan sang their individual song to them so that as the babies grew up they would always know their song of identity. The song would be sung to them on all-important occasions, wedding, initiation into adulthood, and certainly on the deathbed to sing the person into the next world with comfort.

The striking part about the practice of singing unique songs to each member of the community was that the song of identity was used as a way to help them correct themselves when they had lost their way — perhaps behaving in anti-social ways. The song was used to gently remind the offenders who they were, so that they could regain their balance and come back into right thinking and acting. The idea is that by remembering who we are, we each have a sense of responsibility and identity that can bring us into focus again — not by punishing us through isolation but by accepting us with love and remembrance of who we are. It reminds us who we are connected to, which we all forget from time to time.

In our non-African culture, we can try to hear each other’s unique song and we can try for less judgment of newcomers, remembering gentle notes that lull us back to knowing who we are, and greater acceptance of each other whether new, established or relocated community members. We can sing, and listen, too.

I like to think of it as a way to understand and illuminate the need to hear each other’s song every day, especially at a time of renewal and New Year.

— Husch Hathorne, LSCSW is a therapist and a transitioning social worker with Catholic Charities of Salina. She was born in Concordia and is relocating to Alaska to hear her song sung daily as she joins her new husband, the source of her best forwarded emails ever.

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