This piece appeared in newspapers in mid-May, 2022.
What’s more important—what we have in common, or what makes us different?
Of differences, there are plenty. (Religious, racial, political, nationality, etc.).
How much should the differences divide us, and how much should our Common Humanity bind us together?
While pondering this, I remembered going with my father in the early 60s to hear Nelson Rockefeller – then Governor of New York – deliver a lecture. After the lecture, my father went up to Rockefeller and asked him, “Were you a born left-hander who was forced in school to do things right-handed?”
Rockefeller replied, “Yes, I was. How did you know that?”
“Because the schools did the same with me,” my Dad replied, “and I noticed you had the same kind of slight hitch in your speech that I do, which apparently is a result of a person’s being forced to switch from their naturally dominant hand.”
On the drive home, I asked my father why left-handers got switched in his day. He explained that the right-handed majority (90%) had often, throughout history, been intolerant of those who were different.
The majority’s feelings can be inferred from our language: the word “sinister,” which came to mean “evil” or “harmful,” originally meant just the “left side”; likewise another word for “left” – gauche – meaning awkward or graceless.
Why did people insist that people who were different – like my Dad and Nelson Rockefeller – become just like them to fit into their communities?
If people felt threatened by the minority who used a different hand to throw, it’s no surprise that minorities who are different in matters regarding sex would be met with hostility. No surprise because sexual matters are so highly charged and challenging in human life generally.
So it is that a lot of people in America today direct punitive energy against two minorities on sexual matters: those who are attracted to their own sex, and those who are born biologically of one sex but feel they really are of the other.
As one who is right handed, who was always attracted to the opposite sex, and who was always clear about being male as I was born, I nonetheless regard life as plenty challenging.
How much more difficult must it be for people who are not only different from most people, but are the target of hostility and intolerance from the surrounding society.
I won’t pretend to be 100% comfortable about all that varies from humankind’s sexual majorities. But I regard my discomfort as my problem, and would never think it right to add to the problems of those who have been dealt a more difficult hand to play.
Do unto others…
I get great satisfaction when people make good human contact across some dividing line. (When we travel, many of our highlights involve the good contact we made with people who are different—sometimes even without benefit of a shared language. It even makes me feel good when I see an NFL player from one team help a player from the other team to his feet when the play is done.)
Which is a big part of why it was deeply fulfilling to me back in the 90s when I did talk radio conversations with people from the rural, traditional, conservative, Republican culture of the Shenandoah Valley (to which I’d moved).
They and I were on different sides of various of our society’s divisions.
I framed half my shows with what I called my “Common Humanity” topics, asking questions like “Have you ever had a profound experience of beauty?” “What story gets passed down in your family, from generation to generation?”
It was very meaningful to me when we overcame our differences to build something good on the basis of what we had in common. Our “Common Humanity had important substance to it, beyond that a surgeon coming upon anyone of us on an operating table would know the layout of our organs: regardless of the divisions, we all love and laugh and grieve and yearn.
At bottom, we could find common ground by adopting the spirit of “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill toward men.”
And I felt a kind of deep respect and regard for the good conservatives who conveyed the values they held sacred (and, it seemed, lived by): Christian values, Constitutional values, values of good character.
- when those same people support a political force that assaults all those great values for which I’d appreciated them;
- when our political division aligns so conspicuously in such a telling way – with dichotomies like constructive vs. destructive, honest vs. deceptive, concern about improving people’s lives versus concerned only with getting and keeping power, responsibility to our children and grandchildren vs. feeding the greed of the fabulously wealthy fossil fuel industry, etc.,–
those divisions have put me in a painful spot.
While I am indeed big on our Common Humanity, there’s another dimension of things that I’m also big on.
When people for some reason put themselves – knowingly or unknowingly — on the wrong side of an ongoing battle essentially between Good and Evil, that’s a difference that’s too fundamental to ignore.
The common humanity that’s still there I still see. But, distressingly, it’s partly overshadowed by how an important piece of them has been taken over by something my soul rejects.