Being human can be tough.
Living in social groups — as is part of our primate nature — one of the fundamental experiences we face is being completely confused. Often by someone else. What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Why are they saying these things to me? What could they possibly be thinking?? And why can they not understand THE VERY SIMPLE THINGS I’M SAYING?(???!!)
This happens to many of us. Or maybe it’s the exception. But you’ve felt it — that moment where you feel a deep, gut-wrenching churn of confusion and fear. Am I off track? Have I been off track about everything my whole life? Does everybody think I’m ridiculous?
Our minds can quickly devolve into deep self-doubt.
I live in Los Angeles. Like many large urban centers, L.A. is a rich stew of differences. Walking a few blocks in my neighborhood, I might hear ten languages (including several I cannot identify). I see many different ethnicities, and ways of living, from young trans women with silver hair begging for change, to elder muslim women in full burqa with shopping bags from Prada. One day crossing my street, I saw a fashionable Vietnamese-American woman with an elaborate sleeve tattoo, riding a skateboard… Except she had no legs below the hip. (It turned out she is a model and a skier and a scuba diver and has a youTube channel.) These experiences are the very reasons I still love L.A.
But let’s be honest. Differences are rich and exciting and mind expanding…
And they can also be deeply scary. To all of us.
Imagine yourself walking into a room with people who you feel real differences with. Pick a group. Business people. The homeless. Military people. Hippies. Pick a culture or subculture. Imagining that moment, be real. You’d feel fear. And it’s not for no reason.
If we can’t be sure we have a shared perception of the world, it’s reasonable to ask what we’d do if someone got angry at us? Or wanted to be our ‘friend’ without really getting to know us? Or ignored us? Or belittled us? Yes, these things happen anyway, even with people we feel an affinity with. And they’re painful. Always. But with people who might not share our views and values…? Here, touchiness amplifies, quickly becoming fear. Fear can become panic. And panic… Well, panic can become just about anything.
Few of us enjoy what follows when we panic.
In our seminars in Mindful Communication, we teach across different cultures and groups, to literally anybody who walks in the door. We’ve taught in a number of countries, and to several thousand students over the years, in dozens of cultures and hundreds of subcultures. A few years back, while teaching in Ukraine, I was struck by how it feels teaching Susan Chapman’s approach. It feels…the same. Don’t mistake my meaning. Every culture is different. Every person is different. They each have their unique ways of connecting. They have their unique concerns. They have different confusions and different strengths. And I can only begin to sense any of this — it’s more of an atmosphere, a ‘perfume’ in the room. But in each room, I also find that human sameness. We feel fear when we’re not heard. We long so much to be understood. We want to be respected and feel threatened when we’re not. And when someone hears us clearly and we know it, we feel a very basic joy.
In culture after culture, what I’ve seen is this: these struggles themselves are our shared humanity.
I haven’t been in every culture. I haven’t met every person. How would the Penan tribes in the interior of Borneo react to this approach? (And what is their approach to conversation?) How would the citizens stuck inside North Korea’s dictatorship react, or the world’s economic elite lounging on the deck of a yacht anchored off a private island?
I don’t know. I can’t guess. I can never guess.
But among our differences, I have no doubt there are very real similarities. We are human. And in a world where misunderstandings can seem overwhelming, I see the potential to understand this experience within each other — even if we’re confused about everything else. And from that basis, we could even appreciate each other’s differences as well. And deeply, powerfully connect.