I stared as the two young men came into the restaurant. One was bald around the sides, with a thick black greasy mop of hair on top, tipped off by two brilliant red ends, which hung in his eyes. “Weird,” I thought.
What kind of magic would it take to get me to see past the exterior to the human being inside? Not magic, really – just a change of focus.
In my law practice, some of my clients are not what is considered “mainstream.” They have different spiritual, religious, or sexual orientations. That is just fine with me. Having spent much of my life feeling like the “ugly duckling” because I saw things so differently from my peers, being different is something I can relate to. In fact, I prefer the different or exotic, as opposed to the rigid, traditional way of thinking. There is a T-shirt slogan that I like: “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to Hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”
Yet many people do not share this view, and in fact are very threatened by what they consider “abnormal” beliefs. Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, A Way of Life, says that people who are “mainstream” in any religion tend to be more judgmental, and less compassionate, than those at either end of the spectrum. They have a “my way or the highway” approach to life that allows very little wiggle room for individuality.
Sometimes I meet lawyers with this outlook. They mock my clients for their personal beliefs merely because it is not what they are comfortable with. They are often openly hostile or disrespectful, and need to be reminded of the basic courtesies. Based upon the virulence of the assault, I would say there is a lot of fear behind it.
Yet the truth is that we’re all different, and meant to be that way. In the history of the planet there were never two snowflakes alike. There have never been two trees, or plants, or animals, exactly alike. And there have certainly never been two human beings exactly alike. Look around you. For example, although we categorize people by skin color, every single person has a different skin color. “Black, white, red, yellow…” Those are artificial distinctions. Just look. Some people have skin the color of honey. Some have skin more the color of hot chocolate. Some, like my daughter, have skin that I say looks like “good boy coffee…” lots of milk with a tablespoon of coffee mixed in. In fact, if we were going to be accurate, we would have to name each person’s skin color after the unique individual who owns it.
Not only are we different on the outside, but each of us came to this planet to learn different lessons and to contribute our own special talents or gifts. Martha Graham, a pioneer of modern dance, once said “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action. And because there is only one you in all of time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
That is the danger we face in forcing people into a mold that doesn’t fit them. What if Buddha had decided just to fit in? What if Martin Luther King, Jr. had decided not to rock the boat? We don’t know who we are messing with when we try to prevent another from being their own unique expression of life.
Ironically, the key to appreciating our differences lies in realizing that at the very deepest levels, we all want the same things. As one of my martial arts teachers used to say, “There are no differences, only similarities.” We all want to be free from fear. We want to be loved and fulfilled. And we want to be accepted, exactly as we are. The differences come from how we go about getting those needs met.
If the way we satisfy our needs seems too different, it feels threatening. I think of my own reaction to rap, or “hip hop” music, as it is called. To me, it seems repetitive, violent, and derogatory to women. It is highly offensive. But my daughter, who is a beautiful intelligent young woman, loves it. How we used to fight about it, when she lived at home! But she listens to it now that she lives on her own, and seems none the worse for it.
When I attack rap music, I am responding to a need to feel free from fear. I do not feel safe when men are talking about women as “bitches” and “whores,” or threatening physical violence. When my daughter defends rap music, she may be responding to a need to be accepted for the person she is. She may be expressing a need to show that she is different from her mother. It doesn’t mean she’ll be going out getting into gang fights.
I suggest that we can all make a positive difference in this troubled world simply by changing our focus. Instead of looking at the exterior, we can look at the person within and ask, “What need are they meeting by this particular expression or behavior?” I’ve learned that, when I do this, I can reach across miles of differences to find a like soul within. Marianne Williamson says that we are like waves in the ocean, thinking we are different from other waves. We are all sunbeams, thinking we are unconnected to other sunbeams; yet we emanate from the same Source. The answer is simple, though not always easy: Change your focus and voila! Just like magic, you’ve turned an enemy into a friend. Try it and see.