A few days ago, I stumbled across a quote by the Dalai Lama. “I’m Tibetan, I’m Buddhist and I’m the Dalai Lama, but if I emphasize these differences it sets me apart and raises barriers with other people. What we need to do is to pay more attention to the ways in which we are the same as other people.”
I think the Dalai Lama has nailed it. The strife that occurs in the world, from squabbles in families to violence within and between countries, is about differences between people and groups. One person or group wants something to be a certain way and another person or group wants that same something to be another way.
In many respects, our differences are a great strength. They are the kaleidoscopic richness of humanity. It is through our various talents that we have been able to create extraordinary works of art, put people into outer space, engineer preposterously tall buildings and long bridges, design and craft stunningly beautiful fashion and adornments, and discover cures for hideous illnesses and diseases.
It is a fact that no two individuals ever experience anything in exactly the same way. Not even identical twins. That means we all have unique ideas, perspectives, and preferences. Two people can go to the same event and come away with completely different accounts of what happened.
My son and I, for example, have sometimes walked out of the cinema having sat beside each other for a couple of hours watching the same things happen on the big screen, yet we describe very different experiences about what went on. Have you ever been in a cinema when someone is laughing uproariously at something you didn’t even find mildly humorous? Maybe you’ve even been that person.
We seem to be living in an age where differences matter more to people now than perhaps they did previously. People appear to align themselves to groups and define themselves in ever more specific and finely sliced ways to draw distinctions between themselves in the group they identify with and the “others.” Ironically, there are also now movements within organisations to promote such things as equity, diversity, access, inclusion, and belonging. Many universities, for example, have groups, units, officers, and policies focussed on one or more of these areas.
Promoting equity and inclusivity is a very good thing to do and should occur more often. It seems more than a little coincidental, however, that we’ve begun prioritising inclusion and equity at a time when group identification seems to be getting more prolific. The more groups we create, the more violence and strife seem to increase rather than decrease.
Whenever there is a group, there will be members who are in the group and others who are out of the group. The grouping itself, not any particular group, seems to be the setting apart and creating of barriers the Dalai Lama referred to.
It seems clear that those things which set us apart from some, while linking us closely to others are important to us. Perhaps our differences help us feel special, important, and unique. Our differences, however, won’t lead to social harmony. At least, not outside the small group with which we identify.
As the Dalai Lama suggested, creating more contented and cohesive groups requires focussing on our sameness, not our differences. At the most fundamental level, we share the same design. We are all controllers.
Understanding our controlling natures can help us reconcile our differences and our sameness. As controllers, we all have goals, wants, needs, desires, and preferences. We might want different things, but the fact that we want is constant.
Source: olgaddemina/Image ID: 212683545/@123RF
It is also part of our shared blueprint to pay close attention to any gap between what we want and what we have. When how we want things to be and how things currently are diverge, we must do something. What we do, and even the time we take to do it, will vary, but we are built to be dissatisfied with any difference between how we want our world to be and how it currently is. It is an itch we have to scratch.
Even these simple features of how we are put together leave us with clues about how social strife arises. I expand on themes like this in greater detail in a book I wrote with my good friend Rick Marken, Controlling People: The paradoxical nature of being human.
Essentially, because we do all have specific wants and needs, and because we are designed to be intolerant of differences between what we want and what we’re getting, it’s very easy in social situations for people to irritate each other. As I’m going about the business of making things be the way I want them to be, my actions can interfere with the way you want things to be. Perhaps I like the office window open to let in fresh air, but that creates a too-cool breeze for you. So, you shut the window, which makes things stuffy for me. Maybe I like to take my time inspecting the avocados at the market before I make my selection without noticing the queue of busy shoppers growing behind me.
This general pattern of jostling the world of another as we make our own world be as it must is the basic formula for social conflict. Of course, it can also be the case that some people deliberately disturb the worlds of others, but that still follows the reasoning of keeping their own world in order.
By recognizing the important ways in which we are the same, we might be better to celebrate and enjoy the differences that inspire and excite us. If we took the time to understand more fully our controlling nature and the nature of our controlling, we would have a way to start plotting a more equitable, fair, and just social world.
What we control is our difference. That we control is our sameness. It is our sameness that holds the key to a flourishing humanity.