I spent two days this week in the hospital with my sister. One of her hips got old before its time and just completely wore itself out. So, she had total hip replacement surgery. The surgery went well, and her recovery so far has been remarkable. It will be a few months for full recovery, but so far, so good!
On the day of her surgery, I spent several hours in the hospital waiting area. I settled in with a good book and a good cup of coffee. Even though the book was engaging, I found myself doing a lot more people watching than reading.
There were people of all ages and walks of life. In that waiting room, as is life, it was easy to spot the differences between us. We were all different, yet for a few minutes or a few hours, we shared some space and a common experience of waiting for news about surgery results.
The truth is, as human beings, we all have a lot more in common than we have differences. Unfortunately, we take our similarities for granted.
We all want to belong, be valued, feel in control of our lives, be loved, and feel the power of accomplishment.
We all travel the same basic road of life. We all experience happiness, sadness, illness, tragedy, joy, frustration, love, loss, and death. There are no shortcuts, no avoidance options…just longer and shorter journeys with varying amounts of each experience.
So, why do we focus on differences?
To understand differences, let’s look at similarities first. Most people simply take the similarities for granted, so they don’t really notice them. But because we don’t notice them, we miss how similar all people are.
Similarities are assumed, expected. From physical attributes such as the number of arms and legs to basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, water to abstract drives such as success, accomplishment, status, belonging, and happiness. These are all so “obvious” that we do not even question them.
But differences stand out like a sore thumb: These people don’t look like us. These people have different values. These people eat different food. These people measure success differently.
Differences demand our attention. They challenge our assumptions. They threaten our core needs, assumptions, and values. They challenge our beliefs that we have it all figured out. That the way we see the world is the right way. So, we often obsess over them.
Freud coined a term that describes this over-focus on differences – “narcissism of the slight difference” – as a belief that the small things that are different are more important than commonalities. It is the differences between us that get the most attention. We attack others who we perceive as different because we can’t both be right, can we? We focus on the differences as a way to make us feel better about ourselves at the expense of others.
But differences and the belief that those who are different from us are “wrong” pushes people apart, drives conflict, communication disconnects, and the experience of being judged as less than.
But why should differences always lead to issues? The answer is they shouldn’t. Differences are what add the spice to life, fuel teamwork, community, and so much more.
If we were all exactly alike, the world would be incredibly dull, and most likely, we would have died off as a species.
The world is a complex place that demands that we work together, cooperate, respect alternative viewpoints, and accept the challenges they bring. By opening to what others contribute that is different, we can accomplish more than working alone.
I am very grateful to the people who shared the waiting room with me. There were smiles that acknowledged the common situation, small gestures of goodwill, and a calming atmosphere of surrendered control wrapped in patience and hope.
I was not alone, and that was very comforting.
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