closing and opening: a celebration of our sameness and difference
Let’s face it. Being human can be tough.
Living in social groups, as is part of our primate nature, one of our fundamental experiences 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 back to them????(!!)
This experience might sound normal, or the exception. But you’ve felt it — that moment where you feel a deep twitch of confusion and fear. “Am I completely off track? Have I been wrong about everything my whole life? Does anybody else understand what I’m experiencing here?”
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 — with no legs below the hip. (It turned out she is a model 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 ‘close’ friend without really getting to know us? Or ignored us? Or belittled us? Or tried to dominate us? Yes, these things happen anyway, even with people we feel an affinity with. And they’re always painful. But with people who might not share our views and values…? Here, touchiness can amplify quickly, becoming fear. Fear can become panic. And panic… Well, panic can become just about anything. And 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. 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 take this wrong. 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.
By the end of a weekend, I feel this deep respect and affection. It’s something beyond the personal. I begin to glimpse what we are up against, and can sense how hard we’re working to overcome our challenges, how much it all matters. It truly matters to all of us. Every last one. (Most especially the ones among us who shield themselves by pretending that “nothing matters.”)
In culture after culture, what I’ve seen is this: these struggles themselves are our shared humanity. Our tendency towards fear, and the intense relief at figuring out how to open up… The ways we snap shut again… The ways we lash out, and how hard it is to soften again after… The disappointment we can have with ourselves, which can then turn into self-blame and harshness if we’re not careful… And how in that moment of self-doubt, we truly and deeply need just one other human to say honestly — as Chapman teaches, inspired by the world’s great wisdom traditions — Yes, okay, but I also see what you’re doing that’s good. You have good in you. You are not all bad. You might get stuck, but that is not your true nature.
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 for us to find each other. 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.