The pleasures of fall colors in Maine, a sunset in the Caribbean, a waterfall veiling into the Columbia River are experiences we prize as different from our everyday life. We save our money to make them the focal point of vacations. We regale our friends with stories about such wonder. Differences are the source of rare beauty and joy. Viva la difference!
Then there are the differences that source the mutilations of poverty, racism, sexism, and war. That are behind the dysfunctions of teams, families. That drive us to avoid conversations about politics and religion. That have us bend ourselves into the shape of those we see as more potent than we are. The differences of opinion, thought, and belief we dare not share in fear of disapproval and ostracism.
These are the differences where our socialization tells us something is right and something is wrong, something is good and something is bad. This use of differences is ancient. It is at the core of the book of Genesis that serves Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. God tells Adam and Eve that you may eat of the tree of life as much as you like; however, do not partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It wasn’t so much their disobedience to God that got them kicked out of paradise. It was having gained the ability to judge what is good and what is evil. God told us not to go there. She thought that should be her purview.
From a different perspective, the good/evil, winner/loser duality personifies survival-of-the-fittest so useful in a physically hostile world. You’re lost and hungry in the woods and so is a small bear. One of you will eat and the other eaten. Win/lose makes sense here. Unfortunately, we continue to play win/lose even when our physical selves are not in danger. We play win/lose when only our egos—our sense of identity or self-esteem—seem threatened. We will defend and protect them with vigor!
We feel that threat when we perceive ourselves potentially on the
losing side of some difference important to our egos. A girl friend once
offered the odd notion that I’d done something stupid. I fought with her, whom
I dearly loved, for an hour about that. In my mind, being smart had carried me to
success through three decades of seeing myself as socially retarded. In my
mind, she had placed me on the wrong side of the smart/dumb equation. Defending
myself was imperative for me to avoid thinking poorly of myself rather than
deal with the social incompetence which I very much demonstrating.
We’ve been socialized which side is good and which bad across a host differences: right/wrong, high/low, fast/slow, top/bottom, more/less, smart/dumb. We know which wins and which loses with no need to know the application. There are also the distinctions of white/black, male/female, and many others which continue to bedevil use. With these differences we play win/lose with our husbands, wives, children, parents, and friends. At work we may use them in caustic power struggles or to subdue ourselves into conformity from wanting to avoid conflict. Such a misuse of differences.
Many of us pride ourselves on our appreciation of differences and generously
applaud our open-mindedness, curiosity, and willingness to learn. All that goes
out the window if we have attached our ego to being on the right side of some
In such cases, we toss away our ability to learn—the fundamental value of differences. It bears repeating: learning is the fundamental value of differences. I dreamed I was in a roomful of clones of me. It was like I was in a learning desert. Everything those clones knew, I already knew. I was bored out of my gourd! Time to wake up. However, I can learn from you (or anyone else) because you differ from me. But I can learn from you only when I haven’t put my dear little ego into the equation.
I’m older and wiser now and can see my ego for what is—something I have and have to manage rather it managing me. I only use my doctoral on rare occasions now to prove to myself and world now smart I am. As for being dumb, only yesterday I couldn’t figure out where the plate of leftovers I’d put in the microwave had disappeared to. I finally found it in the toaster oven. Had a good laugh at myself.
With ego well in hand, I would love to have a chat with a staunch conservative, Mr. Trump, or a member of the KKK. They are so different from me, I know there is something I can learn from them. When I am curious about, interested in, and appreciative of someone; lo-and-behold, they, more often than not, want to listen to me (maybe not Mr. Trump). When my ego wants me to judge, I have to deliberately and intentionally choose to be curious, interested, and appreciative none of which require my agreement. When I do, I amaze and gratify myself with the results!
Where you have been misusing differences? If you want to know, look back at the moments when anxiety, frustration, fear, or anger gripped you. You felt it in your belly, maybe, your chest, shoulders, your jaw. Those are your threat responses and, unless you were physically in danger, that was your ego in defend mode.
You’ve read this and now are conscious of your ego and how you misuse differences. With that awareness, you’ve afforded yourself the opportunity to consciously use differences for their fundamental value—they’re the only source of learning we have. Let’s spread the word!
Originally posted on Center for Human Systems