Ten years ago, I reluctantly watched a movie that I loved and hated at the same time. Even now, the reality of Crash (2004) feels too overwhelming: “Los Angeles with vastly separate lives collide in interweaving stories of race, loss, and redemption.” (http://www.imdb. com/title/tt0375679/) As characters happen upon each other in work, play and society, conflict surfaces. This conflict usually stays below the radar, until something happens as reflected currently by the racial frustrations in Baltimore or Ferguson or in online cyberbullying that ultimately caused Amanda Todd in Vancouver, BC to commit suicide. Appearing to overflow at any moment, a river of sewage runs rampant in our inability to meet and welcome the stranger.
In one scene, Jean, played by Sandra Bullock, states “I am angry all the time…and I don’t know why.” Just driving in traffic in LA can cause that. However, beyond the transportation issue, so many people are angry simply because we have characterized our “social differences…in terms of spatial separation.” By not sharing space, we lose the contact and perspective to live with those who are different than us. We no longer function as people who share social geography. Rather, we separate ourselves in ways that actually do not meet the human need of relationship and mutual understanding.
Gill Valentine in her textbook Social Geographies: Space and Society addresses the geographical issues that include social categories of class, gender, sexuality, and race. Viewing through the lens of “mutually constituted,” she shows how culture shapes geography at the same time that geography shapes culture. Starting with the body all the way to the nation, Valentine reworks the western dualism of geography (mind vs. body, public vs. private, work vs. home, human vs. animal, white vs. black) with a fresh understanding of geography by making connections through the use of space and society.
In particular, she offers insight by suggesting we hold geography in a “paradoxical space,” “radical openness,” and “Thirdspace.” In other words, social geography can actually provide a place for conversation, if approached in a nondualistic tension rather than in choosing positive versus negative status. Valentine seeks to start the conversation, in some radical ways with her approach about sexuality and “the street.” As a result, in this headlong plunge into the reality of our culture today, she lays bare the existential question: how do we relate to one another?
In my work with the nonprofit, Northwest Leadership Foundation, who seeks the spiritual and social renewal of the city, Thirdspace became a real workable place to encounter people different than myself. I drive across a bridge everyday to go into the city. From Gig Harbor, a rather affluent quaint fishing village, to Tacoma where the nitty gritty of crime and diversity reside, I find myself living in two different worlds. Please keep in mind that I’m making huge generalizations (actually there is more poverty on my side of the bridge; you just can’t see it out in the country area). However, the everyday assumptions for Gig Harbor and Tacoma mean that we’re entirely different.
And I love it – both the geographies and what they have to offer. I want the Thirdspace where we have to come together to understand one another, to communicate side-by-side, to lean into the differences that create conflict but which can ultimately lead to honest relationships. Exploring Thirdspace a bit more, I came upon Edward Soja, a UCLA (Yea Bruins!!!! – my alma mater) professor in postmodern political geography and urban planning. He’s credited with developing the theory of Thirdspace – “everything comes together…subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable, the repetitive and the differential, structure and agency, mind and body, consciousness and the unconscious, the disciplined and the transdisciplinary, everyday lie and unending history.” (By the way, Travis, he has six visions for LA – quite fascinating). He offers this place where we can create new meaning of welcoming the stranger, perhaps not much different than what Valentine hopes for our society as well.
How does all this relate to my world as a follower of Christ? I can only hope that I offer Thirdspace to all those I meet, those who are different than me, those who are the same (in fact, if I’m honest, I’m usually more critical of my “own” kind), and those for whom I don’t know where they stand, other than he/she is a child of God. With my spiritual direction work, I seek to cultivate sacred space for those who desire to listen to God. Not unlike Thirdspace, this sacred space builds on physical geography and social geography to create a greater depth of understanding. Then ultimately, by intersecting with another dimension – a spiritual geography, if you will – the potential for transformation takes place in heart, mind, and soul.
Perhaps then, like Jean who speaks to her Latino housekeeper, Maria, something can occur in our intersecting lives that not only welcomes the stranger, but welcomes ourselves as children of God:
Jean: Do you want to hear something funny?
Maria: What’s that Mrs. Jean?
Jean: You’re the best friend I’ve got.
 Gill Valentine, Section 1.2