A Worldview of Marginality

I once saw on television a film called Overboard. In it, Goldie Hawn plays a spoiled rich wife who treats all those she views to be below her (pretty much everyone) with disdain and disregard. When she loses her memory after falling overboard her yacht, she ends up living in squalor with someone she has treated badly in her past life, gradually falling in love with him and creating a loving home for him and his three boys. After she recovers her memory and is once again aboard her yacht, troubled about what to do with herself, one of men working for her says to her (as closely as I can remember the dialogue): “Madam, most people see life from only their own station. You have the distinction of having had the chance to see things from a second, different vantage point. What you choose to do with that knowledge is up to you.”

I thought of that in connection with a book I brought to read while I’m here at St. Ignatius Retreat House in New York, Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice. DeYoung uses the lives of Dietrich Bonhoefffer, Malcolm X and Aung San Suu Kyi as examples of what he calls mystic-activists, “leaders whose activism consumes them yet is deeply rooted in their faith and in the mystery of the divine.”

One of the hallmarks of these mystic-activists, DeYoung suggests is a worldview from the margins, the ability to look at society from the perspective of the marginalized (what Bonhoeffer called “the view from below”). A worldview of marginality, he suggests, “makes it possible to hold several different perspectives and so gain a more complex and sensitive way of seeing, unavailable to those with only one point of view. The sociologist Charles Willie defines marginal people – those capable of viewing life through multiple lenses – as those “who live in, between, and beyond” boundaries of race, class, etc.

This ability to view life through multiple lenses is crucial to reconciliation and peace. DeYoung quotes Willie’s observation that “marginal people unite the clans, races and other groups in society and help them reconcile their differences” because they have “the ability to go beyond one’s boundaries and see new patterns and possibilities.”

The worldview from the margins is not something valuable only for a few. It would help us all to develop the ability to see things from more than our own point of view. If a worldview from the margins is a hallmark of mystic-activists, then let us all be mystic-activists.

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