As I sit down to write this post, the planet Earth is now home to over 7.4 billion people. That’s billion with “B”. All currently breathing in and out, same as you and me. We all got here in pretty much the same way, and we all need the same basic things to survive – water, food, shelter.
But that’s where the similarities end. Not one of those 7+ billion people is exactly like you. Not one. You are the only you there will ever be. Think about it – you are truly unique. A one-of-a-kind creation, never to be repeated. This is a fact you know is true, but have you ever really thought about its significance? Or how it might be affecting your relationships?
We are all different from one another by design. Regardless of what you believe about the source of that design, no one – not even your identical twin – has your same fingerprints. They are the product of your genes and the affect of the environment in the amniotic sac inside your biological mother. Somewhere in the 6-13 week range of gestation, you touched the wall of that sack, and your fingerprint patterns were created.
Our DNA and genetic inheritance produce these vast differences in our physical bodies. To that we can add countless variations in personalities and temperments, and the possible combinations and permutations are limitless. All of these traits make up who we are as individuals. We benefit from some, and suffer from others. Especially in our relationships.
At the macro, geopolitical level, we all understand how our differences can lead to horrible things like wars and genocide. It’s like we can’t allow the different-ness to exist. Different is bad. Different is evil. It must be eradicated. And yet it can’t be. There’s no possible way. But this post isn’t about world peace. It’s about your peace.
Let’s look closer to home. In your little corner of the world, there are a number of people interacting with you, all of whom are completely different from you. But just how different are they, really? And do you celebrate those differences, or do you spend enormous amounts of energy conforming to some jointly accepted ideals of behavior and self-expression? For most, we choose the latter. We learned that it is right, it is good, to be the same. Different…not so much.
I study other people so I know how to behave in certain social interactions. Take shaking hands, for instance. In my culture, when I was a kid, I was taught to shake a man’s hand when I greet him. It’s a sign of respect. You put out your right hand (never your left), he does likewise, and you wrap your hand around his, palm to palm. To convey confidence, you squeeze firmly, but not too hard. No limp wrists allowed. A nice firm handshake. You hope your palm isn’t sweaty, or worse, his is. I do okay with the handshake, I think.
So…when did fist bumping become a thing? Nobody shakes hands anymore. Suddenly I’m doing it all wrong! I’m back to being different. It makes me uncomfortable, and now I’m floundering socially. What is the correct form for fist bumping? Is it a light tap, or a soft punch, knuckle on knuckle? Do I show my confidence by not wincing when the nerves in my fingers go numb afterwards? Who’s judging my fist-bumping performance?
I am. It’s right there on my inner score card, marked with my current perceptions of everyone else’s perceptions of me. If I perceive you think I just did a good fist bump – score! What made it good? I did it the way you would do it.
This mental score card is where I keep track of how well I am conforming to what’s expected of me. How much the same I am. I watch people’s faces, listen to their voice tones, clue in to their body language. Am I doing it right? Do you still like me? Can I stay?
It’s the same with my clothing, my expressions, my mannerisms, or the sound of my voice. I am a chameleon of sorts. I willfully change with my social environment, all in a super human effort to blend in, to not stand out, to not be different. Because different is bad, right?
Different means you’re arrogant. Or hopeless. Or clueless. Or “one of those”. A permanent outsider. Whatever it is, different is not good.
I can be a little different. We call it individuality. But my different-ness better not go all the way to weird. My different-ness can’t make people uncomfortable. If I’m too different, then it’s too hard to accept me, to love me. After all, who wants to put in that much effort?
That’s why we pursue sameness – it’s self-centeredness, pure and simple. We love the people who are easiest to love, and those are the people most like us already. Why do I live in a community of people who look like I do, who talk like do, and who live like I do? It’s just easier. We don’t want to pay the price to love someone who’s different. It costs too much.
We all want to be loved. Who doesn’t? But if we want to be loved by certain people, we have to behave like them, talk like them, and look like them as much as we are able, in order to make it easier for them to love us. Otherwise they might not bother. We do this unspoken dance, deciding how much energy to expend on conforming to their expectations, if we really believe we need their love.
Unless we can’t change enough. Unless we’re too different.
Right about now, your inside voice is hopefully shouting, “This shouldn’t be!” Thankfully, some people excel at loving those who are hard to love – those who are different. They work with handicapped veterans suffering from PTSD. Battered woman hiding in shelters, fearing for their lives. Young boys and girls disowned by their families and thrown out like yesterday’s garbage. The homeless, the helpless, the lost.
But the differences don’t have to be so drastic. What about the young man at work who’s mannerisms are too feminine for your comfort, so you won’t invite him to the group luncheon? Or the girl who has a face full of piercings and tattoos covering her arms, the same girl you are secretly afraid of, but who is actually afraid of you? Or the young man whose religion and dress differs from you and your friends, so you won’t invite him to the latest blockbuster movie?
How far will you go to love someone who is different from you?
What happens when someone you love, someone you were comfortable with and thought was pretty much just like you, suddenly surprises you with their different-ness? What happens when you discover they have a secret desire or personal quirk that doesn’t conform to your earlier perceptions of them? Does loving them suddenly become harder? And what if you believe, for whatever reason, that secret desire or quirk is somehow “wrong”? How hard is it now to love them as you once did?
They’re different, but will you still love them?
They are not wrong – just different. They are different by design, just like all of us. And we need to start celebrating – AND LOVING – our “different-ness”. It’s not always easy, but who cares if it’s hard? Love celebrates different!