Sometimes I wonder if the world we’ve created (in which we focus so consciously on our differences; our unique qualities; and our particular abilities that make us who we are) is one in which we can’t so readily see how similar we are anymore. If so, that makes me sad, because it is the common ground we find between us that I think is the only sure-fire way to begin to heal our broken, hurting world.
Sure, it’s true – we are a big melting pot of people in this country and around the world. From physical attributes to preferences and much more, we do have a lot of qualities that help us stand out from each other and which make us unique. While this is wonderful and makes the world so much more interesting, it can also unfortunately be a breeding ground for discontent – both within us and between us.
If we can notice and appreciate the differences between ourselves and other people without assigning judgment to these differences that makes us come up short (or makes us feel better than someone else), then we can truly simply appreciate and maybe even celebrate those differences. But part of being human and having a sinful nature (with an ear that unfortunately sometimes bends for the enemy to whisper into) is that we tend to judge pretty darn quickly.
For instance, it’s really hard to look at a friend of mine and simply appreciate that she has a very toned figure that looks great in the long, flowy dresses she favors because she works hard to achieve that physical health; instead, it’s easier for me to lament the fact that my body doesn’t look that way and it doesn’t “rock” those dresses as hers does. So then I feel “less than” my friend – not a good place to be, and not where He wants us to live. If I make judgments like this about even half of the differences I notice in those around me (that make me feel bad about myself), I end up discouraged and defeated. And I know I’m not alone in this tendency; I’ve talked to hundreds of women (and a handful of men) who do the same thing and end up feeling rotten as a result.
And sometimes we even look at people around us and feel glad that we aren’t them or that we aren’t in their situation! It’s not easy to admit or fun to consider, but we’ve all done it. And again, it’s not where He wants us to park our minds, and living from an attitude of “more than” certainly isn’t serving Him, either.
If we aren’t really, really careful, we can also see the ways in which others are different than us as something which makes the people themselves unfamiliar and thus not as “safe” as people who are like us. Human nature often gravitates toward “like” and “familiar”, and so if we make such a big deal out of people being different than we are, we can actually sort of downplay our likelihood of connecting with them out of a sense of noticing the differences on a grander scale than our common ground. Personally, I think this is a huge problem in our world today in terms of relations between races, cultures, and personal preferences.
Bias doesn’t have to be packaged with a neat bow; rather, it can simply be that someone has trouble overlooking how different someone else seems to them, and because of the lack of perceived similarity, they feel little connection and have to get out of their comfort zone to overcome that feeling and reach out (and then they have to hope that the other person isn’t feeling the same way in return). This is something I’m thinking about a lot these days as we each have to examine how we treat other people in light of our faith, our beliefs, and our conscience. And I’m not proud of the fact that I’ve let differences blind me to the beauty of similarity and connection with amazing people around me, at times.
How do we connect with other people given our tendency to judge and focus on our differences? We first look for what is familiar and how we can connect, because that is what makes us take that first step to reach out and connect; from there, we can notice and appreciate difference with less of a negative emotional component.
Here’s an example: I recently met a beautiful older woman with dark skin, lively eyes, and an ornate cane to help her comfortably walk. If I first notice all that is different between us, I see that she is about 20-30 years older than I am; she may be widowed, divorced or single (or just not wearing a wedding band) while I am married; her race is different from mine, and her culture may be; and she has some health issues that affect her mobility. These differences should never be a barrier to connection; however, I could easily let them trick me into believing I have little in common with her, so we probably wouldn’t connect well. If I believe this, I am not as likely to reach out to her, and isn’t that what He wants us to do? No, we don’t have to talk to everyone all the time (my introverted heart says a big “hallelujah!” to that), but we are called to be present; be loving; and be like Jesus – and Jesus balanced reaching out to anyone and everyone (especially those different than us) with seeking solitude to recharge in order to bring His best to others.
Instead, I focused on the fact that we are both women of at least middle age; we were both dressed in similar colors so I wondered if we shared a favorite color (teal/turquoise); and we were both in a place that indicated we had a shared interest. As luck would have it, we ended up seated together, and I struck up a conversation, and in doing so, I was delighted to find that we indeed did have much more in common than not (and yes, turquoise was her favorite color, too). We shared a wonderful time together, and she thanked me warmly for engaging her in conversation. After I left, I thought about what a shame it would have been had I not first sought a connection from which to work from to get to know this amazing lady who has led a very different life from mine and who may look different from me, but we share the same heart in many ways.
Of course, there are times when we reach out and find that we don’t have a lot in common with someone else or they don’t return our friendliness, and that’s okay. Sometimes it’s more about seeing where a person is in life and meeting them there. See someone crying? Offer a tissue or a listening ear. See someone hungry? Offer something to eat. See someone struggling? Help if you can. It’s not hard, but we make it hard.
Let’s stop making it hard. Let’s try to see what we have in common with the people we interact with, and work from there. Let’s find the needs they have, and try to help. No more needed, but certainly no less.