From the Minister
In Jay's column in the current issue of Voices,
he talks about defining the word "typical" and how our notion of being "typical" helps shape our perception and actions. An archive of these and other columns by the Ministers is maintained and is accessible on the left:
September 15, 2014
“Typical.” It’s such an ordinary word, one we use with some frequency. We all know what “typical” means, right?
As with many words, when we start to examine the actual meaning of the word “typical,” what seemed obvious becomes more challenging. “Typical:” says one dictionary definition, “having the distinctive qualities of a particular type of person or thing.” Another is more casual: “normal for a person, thing, or group: average or usual.”
These definitions raise a functional question. If “typical” has to do with “distinctive qualities” or with what is “normal . . . average or usual,” then what does it mean to speak of any person as being “typical?”
Is there a “typical” butcher or baker or candlestick maker? A “typical” banker, social worker, scientist or sixth grade teacher? How about a “typical” Latina, Republican, or southerner? What “distinctive qualities” are “normal” for a Muslim or a Jew or a Unitarian Universalist?
Giv Nassari earned his Bachelors from the University of California Berkeley and his Masters from the Sorbonne, both degrees in fields related to the political economy of developed countries. He began his professional life as a community planner and public management consultant.
In his devotional readings, he was deeply struck by an article from the 15th century Arab Andalusian mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi. Intrigued, he decided to study Sufism, a mystical tradition in Islam. Giv Nassari received his PhD from the University of California Berkeley in the History of the Near East with a focus on its social and Sufi history.
I met Giv as a professor in a class I took in Berkeley on the 13th century Persian poet and Sufi Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. He was brilliant, strikingly handsome, a charismatic if also somewhat disorganized teacher. I was so taken by his reading of Rumi in the Persian that I invited him to a social gathering in my home to read to a group of my friends.
I recall running into Giv a year or so after the class on the streets in Berkeley, a chance encounter that led to a long lingering over coffee. It was one of those unscheduled conversations in which we talked deeply about what really matters to each of us. I saw him in passing a few times before losing touch and then moving across the country.
I doubt many people would think of Giv Nassari as a “typical” community planner or public management consultant. I’m not sure he’d fit most people’s notion of a “typical” academic. And, I wonder who would consider Giv to be a “typical” Muslim? He was unabashedly devout, a deeply committed man who attested that his Islamic faith anchored and guided his life. But, does that then make him “typical”?
I’ve thought about Giv in recent days. I remember how often and how openly he expressed his utter, intense disdain for hate-filled, violent people who co-opt his beloved religion to justify acts of barbaric brutality. Both Giv Nassari and the thugs using beheadings to get attention for their political aims claim to be motivated by the precepts of Islam. But which is the “typical” Muslim?
I’ll spend part of my day today in a conversation involving a diverse group of clergy and representatives of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD). CMPD actually reached out to us, calling for this conversation to address concerns we’ve expressed over the recent arrest of a young, African American activist. It offers another opportunity to engage the difficult question: Exactly what is a “typical” clergy person, a “typical” police officer, a “typical” young African American man, a “typical” activist like?
The late Maya Angelou admitted:
I've sailed upon the seven seas
and stopped in every land,
I've seen the wonders of the world
not yet one common man.
In these charged times, when emotions in our state and our nation are running high, it is easy to reduce those with whom we disagree to succinct descriptions of what is “typical.” Let me be a bit more honest and personal: in these highly charged times, it is easy for me to reduce those with whom I disagree to some succinct description of what is “typical.” But life keeps throwing complexities at me that confuse my assumptions about “distinctive qualities” and about what is “normal.”
Maybe you can help me out. If you know, please share with me. When we consider not just dictionary definitions and certainly not irrational stereotypes but actual lived experience, just what is a “typical” North Carolinian, conservative, mystic, liberal, religious person, thinking person, feeling person, humanist, young person, third world person, immigrant, child, woman or man like?