We’re Not As Different As We Think

One of the unfortunate facts of life is that all human knowledge is based in the perception of difference.  There is no subject without an object.  There is no you and me without a distinction between you and me.  We’re not aware of something until it calls attention to itself.

I have cousins who are identical twins.  I could always tell the difference between them, but their teachers sometimes couldn’t.  They were able to switch classes occasionally without the teacher’s knowledge.  It was a good way for one of them to skip gym.

I had a marriage fail because I didn’t recognize all the differences between us.  I didn’t know myself enough to distinguish the lack of those same traits in her.  It’s easy now to say I should have known better, but, the truth is, I didn’t.

Children are routinely excused for selfishness or rudeness because they don’t know better.  We expect them to eventually get along with others, and take responsibility for themselves, but, before then, we say people are immature.  They haven’t learned the proper distinctions, which was exactly my state when I got married.

Jung called it individuation; we separate ourselves from others and learn boundaries.  It’s considered a requirement for mental health.  Otherwise, we can’t tell where I end and you begin, and that is never pleasant.  Ask anyone who has experienced a stalker.

Individuation is what happened to Adam and Eve.  The couple became aware of being naked when they realized one of them didn’t have a penis.  Adam wasn’t an Eve.  That opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities, which were apparently God’s worst nightmare, because he penalized sex by making it result in children.  The Bible, of course, doesn’t use the word sex.  It says the original Mom and Dad “knew each other.”

Even in euphemism, the myth of Adam and Eve is amazingly true.  The ability to distinguish difference is the basis for our unique self-consciousness.  We can only recognize ourselves by looking in the mirror of someone who isn’t us.  We come to know who we are by how others see us, to which we respond based upon how we want them to see us, and re-calibrate our presentation on a continual basis through recurring interactions, hoping to exhibit a coherent image of ourselves.  It’s a goal I have yet to achieve.

Our humanity is based in separateness; it can’t be helped.  In a sense, we called each other into being, and consciousness has been a call and response song ever since.  We give birth to something that is no longer a part of us, in order to give birth to ourselves.

On one hand, this has given rise to an enormous amount of variety within the human species.  Our identities are refracted in a seeming infinity of ways.  We only think everyone is like us because that’s who we hang out with.

If you were transported to live among the Sambians, you’d be with people who believe boys become men by giving older boys blow jobs and swallowing the semen.  They also rub it on themselves to improve their skin tone.  For you, I hope that’s an example of human diversity in action.

If you had the misfortune to land on Inis Beag, you’d be among people who were forbidden to say the word “sex,” wore clothes during sex, and did it as quickly as possible, since it was believed injurious to a man’s health.  Bathing was rare, in order to avoid nudity, and dogs were beaten for licking themselves.

I don’t know any other animal who demonstrates that kind of range.  It’s a tribute to how we became human in the first place.  We have a degree of freedom other creatures lack.  To be human is an amazing gift.

But, on the other hand, the requirements of consciousness separate us, and the differences that develop can be gargantuan.  In America, the Sambians would be scorned as sex offenders.  The denizens of Inis Beag would tear out their eyes after five minutes of television.  Any type of deviancy you can imagine has probably been considered normal at some place at some time.

Those enormous differences become visceral.  Others are not simply dissimilar to us; they’re wrong, debased, even depraved.  They need to be converted, reformed, or quarantined.  Someone worships a different God.  Someone has sex with the same sex.  Someone has tattoos and piercings, or wears a burqa, or is a guy who thinks he’s a girl.  The fault-lines of difference develop into force-fields of repression and hate.  Radicalized Muslims fly planes into office buildings; Americans drop bombs on Afghanis.

There’s a reason God was reluctant to kick Adam and Eve out of the garden.  The Creator knew what knowledge of separateness would bring.  Eight verses after the primal couple become refugees their oldest son murders his brother, and the violence hasn’t stopped since.  Today, we simply have bigger weapons.  We can get rid of everyone.

That is why the Bible’s overarching concern is how we relate with each other.  How are People of The Book to show their love for God?  By how they love each other, especially the strangers, the weak, and the undeserving.  As Jesus formulated the idea, we’re to even love our enemies.  The Kingdom of God is meant to be a present reality, not a future expectation.

But that vision demands seeing beyond our differences and admitting our commonality as created creatures.  People of faith know they have responsibilities to something beyond themselves.  The unity of humanity as a sacred creation is the shared belief of the world’s great spiritual traditions.

The Katha Upanishad of Hinduism expresses it this way.  Even by the mind this truth is to be learned: there are not many but only ONE.  Who sees variety and not the unity wanders on from death to death.[i]

Seeing the One is hard for us.  It goes against the very thing that makes us human, calling us beyond ourselves.  That’s how we know it’s a demand of God.  Think of it as the next necessary stage in our evolution, if we’re to survive the pruning process.  Who says the demands of God are supposed to be easy?  The Hindus believe it can take tens of thousands of lifetimes to figure everything out .  Recognizing Oneness is one of the supreme feats of consciousness, and a requirement for our species to survive.  Our end must transcend our beginning.

[i] Katha Upanishad 4:10, The Upanishads, Juan Mascaro, Penguin Books, 1965.

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About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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