Putting the focus on our dynamic connecting process (rather than our static disconnected state) can also completely alter how we interact with and relate to others. Recognizing the importance of separation, and seeing the opportunity of our gaps, makes it easier to respect the differences that invariably exist between us. We can allow strangers to be “strange” – and not freak out over it. We can appreciate the things that set us apart – not as divisive, corrosive influences that threaten the fabric of society, but as valuable aspects of the wide variety of human manifestations. Our distinctly separate identities become crucially important, and just as we claim our right to be different, to stand apart, to be Other, we can see that everybody else has just as much right as we, to be who and what they are. And in the process of interacting in a way that respects and allows (even welcomes) inevitable distance, both sides can come away with a greater appreciation of who they are, compared to the Other.
A great example of this is a conversation I had with a former Hell’s Angel in September, 2016, while we were both waiting for our cars to be fixed at the dealership. We were hanging out in the waiting room, checking our smartphones and occasionally glancing at the flat-screen television on the far wall. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, that day, but the biker was. He had plenty to say about the upcoming election and the candidates, and it was quickly obvious that we each favored the candidate the other one distrusted (and wished would just go away). He seemed to assume I was squarely on the opposite side from him, although that wasn’t entirely true.
He also had plenty to say about his life and his experience, which was nothing like mine. He’d been a member of an internationally known biker gang. He’d gone to prison for killing a man in a bar fight. He had several children by a number of women, some of whom had been his wives. He was deeply religious in certain ways, but when I started talking about other sections of the Bible that strictly prohibited things he did (like cutting his hair and getting tattoos), he wasn’t familiar with those passages. He was dismissive and disrespectful of just about everything that mattered to me, and he longed for a return to the “good old days” of “family values”, which sounded great for him, but not so great for me.
We were clearly situated in completely different “quadrants” of life, with our values in sharp contrast to each other. And we actually ended up having a spirited, invigorating discussion. I didn’t fault him for what he was saying. Nor did I criticize him for what he believed. I just listened – and objectively countered some of his most vehement arguments with scriptural references that supported the opposite view. Eventually he backed off on his aggressive criticism and our initially heated conversation gradually got to the point where we’d both stated our cases, we’d both made it clear what we thought about the election, society, where we were going in the world, and what we believed the Bible had to say about it. We each agreed to disagree with 97.95% of what the other one thought – without calling each other names. Frankly, trying to win our little skirmish in the larger culture war would have been a total waste of time. Our life experiences had shaped us too differently, for that to ever happen.
But by the end of our hour-long stay in that waiting room, we were sharing pictures on our smartphones and comparing notes on the weather. Here was a burly, tat-covered former Hell’s Angel, clad in leather and denim with a chain connecting his wallet to a belt loop, showing me – a lesbian high-tech program manager in business casual attire – pictures of cumulonimbus and marveling at how they looked like horses galloping across the sky. He showed me pictures of his bike, his son’s bike, and his grandkids. I showed him pictures of the deer in my back yard. And when the mechanic called me to get my car, there was a connection there. It wasn’t the deepest, most profound connection, but it was definitely enough to bridge the gap that existed between us at the start.
Others are different from us. They should be different. Just as we should be different from them. It’s neither healthy nor realistic to expect everyone to share everyone else’s outlooks, opinions, and values. Life takes too many different turns for so many of us, and the minute you expect people to fall in line with a standard position, regardless of their own life experience and perspectives, you ask them to sacrifice a part of themselves. We’re asked to erase our differences and blend in with the group lots of times, of course, especially in situations where conformity is valued and divergence is feared. But it’s unrealistic, and ultimately it’s unsustainable. Because frankly, we’re just not built to adhere 100% to The Right Way Of Doing/Thinking Things. Plus, more diverse communities are livelier communities, giving us the chance to both reinforce our own identities and find new and different ways to constructively connect with others.