Maybe it just stood out to me for some weird reason, but I seem to remember a time when we were kids and one of the big topics of conversation in school was to celebrate our differences. After all, every single person has a unique set of fingerprints, different colored hair or skin, different ways of speaking or acting, etc. This was basic, kindergarten-level education, and the point was always the same: you are special; you are unique; you are your own individual.
What a load of hogwash.
That’s not to say there isn’t something valuable in recognizing our cultural or ethnic differences or even our more basic differences from freckles to big noses to little feet. After all, much of what I do here every day is keep constantly aware of those differences. It’s right there on the surface, of course. In fact, I can’t walk down the street without being stared at or talked about frequently, because I’m so blatantly, obviously different… “There goes that white guy. Is he French? Bonjour! Is he American? A tourist, yes, a tourist. What? He knows a smidgen of Arabic and no French? That’s strange.”
Strange. Different. We want so badly to hold onto those things, to think we are special, even special enough to let those surface-level differences tell a very ugly lie. It’s the very lie that cuts to the heart of all our strife. It’s the lie that explains all our wars, our hatred, our cruelty to one another, this lie that we have this odd need to celebrate. There’s a dangerous, fine line between loving and hating what makes us different, a line we don’t know how to navigate well.
So yes, while there is a part of me that can appreciate and understand the many ways we are different, I only appreciate those things in that they tell a much deeper story, namely a story about how we are all really the same. A story that suggests, if we are to survive, we must learn how to get along, to seek that sameness. That can be a hard truth to swallow, because it means we are the epitome of both the worst and the best of what it means to be human. Carl Sagan says it better than I ever could when he sums up life on a pale, blue dot in the middle of the cosmos:
Consider again that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam…think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. …To me, [this] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
There are good and bad people everywhere. It has nothing to do with religion or politics or economics – the best and worst of those spheres are only as good as the people who make them up.
Last night, Khalil and I were on his roof staring at the stars. Even with the light pollution in Sefrou, the sky was filled with millions of tiny specks, a handful of glitter tossed across the dome. Khalil picked up a small rock and dropped it near a cat three stories below. We both laughed as the cat scampered off scared by the sound of the rock hitting the ground. Then, we just sat there quietly, no idea what the other was thinking and no good ways to easily express our thoughts even if we could have tried.
Still, my thoughts were plain and simple: we were given that same glorious sky, that stretches from Morocco to Tennessee; the same earth that – no matter how hard we try to divide it with imaginary lines – will always be one solid clod of dirt for our food and feet; the same waters that so pervade us, they make up not only our vast oceans but even the majority of our flesh and bone; the same hearts that can love and hate, hurt and heal, no matter how willing we are to accept or deny this.
Our differences are inevitable, surface-level truths we negotiate daily. They are the tip of the iceberg to what makes us us. The real task and the hard choice, though, is to look below the waters, to ask and discover what brings us together and makes us all the same while loving the differences, too. Then, only then, we can stare up at the stars, the vastness of the sky, and humbly, quietly, just stand there and smile.