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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Familiarity and Strangeness

Terry Martin contributes one of his occasional thought-provoking essays:

We have all heard the proverb “familiarity breeds contempt”; the notion that “extensive knowledge of or close association with someone or something leads to a loss of respect for them or it.”1 The expression “The Familiar and the Strange” originates in anthropology:

The cultural anthropologist’s goal during fieldwork is to describe a group of people to others in a way that makes strange or unusual features of the culture seem familiar and familiar traits seem extraordinary. The point is to help people think in new ways about aspects of their own culture by comparing them with other cultures.2

Sue Watling writes:

C W Mills in the Sociological Imagination says sociology lies at the intersection of history and biography. People and the Past. What a great location. Mills says to think sociologically is about making the familiar strange. This requires thinking critically about the social world. Adopting a different way of seeing. Challenging conventional wisdom.3

There are times when we can feel strangers to ourselves, and suffer from depersonalization, “a feeling of detachment or estrangement from one’s self.” No longer at home in our own bodies we feel detached and “there may be a sensation of being an outside observer of one’s mental processes,”. 4

We keep people at a distance when we don’t want to become involved with them or be familiar with them. However keeping things at a distance can also enable us to see them in a broader perspective and in context.

To lose oneself is “to give all of one's attention or thought to something.” It is the experience of becoming unfamiliar with oneself.5 On the other hand to find oneself is “to learn, or attempt to learn, what kind of person one is and what one wants in life.”6

There is a biblical mandate to show hospitality to the stranger in our midst:

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.7

Jesus gave a stern warning to all who gave excessive attention to themselves and self-absorption:

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?8


7. Hebrews 13:2 King James Version

8. Matthew 16:25-27 King James Version

Terry Martin is a trustee of Caraway, celebrating the wisdom and richness of old age, which is the Southampton charity which has a team of Anna Chaplains led by City Chaplain for Older People, the Revd Canon Dr Erica Roberts.



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