The Same But Different

This is the script of another popular podcast episode released on 29 April, 2020. In the few months since I wrote this a lot has happened and these words are as relevant today as ever. They always should be.

So much of psychology is about differences between individuals and groups. Groups are defined in terms of categories like gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, sexual preference, identity and many others. Studies aim to understand how certain behaviours vary among and between these categories. Understanding how these differences lead to inequality, racism, marginalisation and discrimination is important, but just as important is understanding the things we have in common. The behaviours and traits that make us the same.

It’s often said that if we were all alike then the world would be a very boring place. Indeed, outward appearances would suggest we are all unique. We express ourselves in myriad ways, through tattoos, piercings, hair styles and make up. Through our clothing, its colours and styles. We might prefer shorts, socks and sandals or knee high boots. It’s almost as though we go to such great lengths to emphasise our individuality to hide the fact that underneath, we have so much in common. 

In the year 2000, a documentary film was released called Promises. It explores the Israeli Palestinian conflict through the eyes of seven Arab and Jewish children. When interviewed, the children share their hatred of the other, expressing an upbringing of hatred and misunderstanding they have been exposed to throughout their lives. Yet, the children are eventually brought together and they spend a day playing, sharing a meal and generally just being kids. They soon forget about their narrative and realise that they are at heart the same. When their time together draws to a close the children become emotional, one expressing sadness that when they part things will be as they were. The children could see, in that brief instant, that reconciliation, forgiveness and acceptance of each other could be found, if only they could rejoice in their commonalities, rather than their differences and their past. Tragically, the film makers return two years later to find the children have grown and their views have hardened. Their hatred of the other has intensified and their innocence is all but lost. The lesson of that day forgotten, their future bleak.

So what do we have in common? 

Well our DNA for a start, well most of it. 99.9% of our DNA is shared. Every nuance of humanity, from eye colour to skin tone, to creativity to athleticism exists within just 0.1% of our DNA, but that isn’t really that special, we share 50% of our DNA with bananas after all, no seriously.

When looking at scales of life satisfaction in different countries around the world some common threads emerge. We love to love and to be loved so not surprisingly family and relationships are the some of the most important things to us. This is a universal truth. Whatever your income, religion, culture or language, family and friends are what we cherish most. 

Reciprocity. This is a finding from social science which describes the power of feeling like you owe someone something. This works at all levels, between people who know each other and people who don’t and it even works between nations. If someone does something for you without any prompting, you will feel compelled to return the favour, and often to a greater extent. For example, say I sit down next to you on a park bench on a hot day and offer you one of the two cold drinks I am holding, you will probably accept it. Now, a bit later if I tell you about the fundraiser I am participating in and ask if you’d like to buy some raffle tickets you are almost guaranteed to purchase some. But if I didn’t offer you a cold drink and just asked if you’d like to buy the tickets, you probably won’t. One unsolicited favour creates an imbalance which we just can’t resist, and it doesn’t matter what you think of me personally, our psychology drives us to even the score irrespective of what we think of the person or the situation. We can’t help but give in to the desire for reciprocity. What else do we have in common?

Security. The United Nations says every citizen on the planet deserves the right to be safe and secure. Security comes in many forms, it’s not just about being secure from the threat of violence. It’s also about access to clean water and reliable and healthy sources of food. Freedom and security from disease and ill health and access to health care. If we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs we can see how we need security at all levels and we have this in common. We have the right to not be forced to work or fight against our will. We have the right not to be raped or tortured, beaten and enslaved. We share our right to dignity and agency and to be respected as autonomous individuals. We also share the right to defend ourselves against those who would take those freedoms away from us.

Money. We invented money to represent a promise. Money unlocked trade and commerce and the establishment of communities, villages, towns, cities and countries. Unfortunately, it has become a core tenant of society and the rules that govern it have created widespread inequality and undermined much of what we do have in common. Money leads us to forget our humanity and commonality unless we make altruism a conscious decision in our lives. Love it or hate it, money is a fiction we’ve created that connects us with each other every day.

How about spirituality? Whether you believe in an all knowing, all powerful deity, or many, or whether you believe in knowledge and science as an atheist, we all crave an anchor point for our existence. Some meaning or explanation for the purpose or non-purpose of it all. Theologians explain life through supernatural forces, non-believers explain it through physics and mathematics, some explain it with both. Regardless of the language you use and the beliefs you have, we all identify with the preciousness of life and its treasures that seem to transcend the real and tangible. Whether through music and art or through prayer and devotion, we tap into the same well of spirituality, we all cherish that which we can’t define or explain and that which gives colour and beauty to life. For thousands of years we’ve searched for a meaning to our lives, we share a need to understand and a need for purpose.

And we hurt and we suffer, all of us. If only we could see how much our suffering ties us together. Often we behave in the most cruel and hurtful ways when we are suffering the most. We can’t explain or resolve our inner conflicts so we retreat into ourselves, or resent those who seem to be having a better go of life than ourselves, we strike out at life for its unfairness. But if only we knew how much we all battle the same demons. We compare ourselves to others, we wonder if we are worthy of love or good enough to be appreciated and deserving of respect. We all make mistakes and have regrets and disrespect the people we care about the most. We let people down, we are selfish and thoughtless. We all do this, we are all suffering alone with our thoughts. If only we knew how insecure we all were, we wouldn’t feel so alone, so embarrassed and so afraid.  We wouldn’t feel such conflict from suppressing our feelings, emotions and anxieties. We could find oneness in being our most honest selves.

We are all afraid. We fear death and illness and loss. We fear the future for we don’t understand why we are here or where we are headed. We know that our time is short and that one day we will look into our loved ones eyes for the last time. Or maybe we won’t.  One day it will simply be gone, and we will leave only tragedy and suffering behind. Sitting in the sun, enjoying the blue sky and a gentle breeze, listening to laughter and the sounds of life, we accept our mortality and embrace our life as a fleeting but fulfilling existence for which we are thankful. We embrace death and accept it. Yet when the sun has gone down and we lie alone with our thoughts in the smallest and darkest of hours, we no longer except the only truth in our lives. We are become filled with terror at the thought that it will all one day come to an end. We hope it means something, we want to believe it does. But we don’t know, we can never know. And we are all afraid together, even as we pray to our god, we ask for the strength to accept the most inevitable of inevitabilities. Together we live, and together we are afraid. And together, we will one day all die.

It seems as if we are complex characters, unique and layered with nuance, but really we are simple animals of blood and bone with large brains and even larger perceptions of our own importance. The result of generation after generation of evolution, our mind and body have adapted to win the competition for survival. How our senses interpret the world and how our biases and heuristics simplify it are simply tools we have developed to exist in the most efficient and utilitarian ways. Fear keeps us alive, relationships and love keep us safe and in harmony, and suffering is as much a part of life as success, joy and happiness. Fortunately we have evolved an optimism bias to see the world as better than it really is, to believe that bad things won’t happen to us and to help us cope with the ever present threat of our own mortality. 

So when you are standing in a queue, in a crowd or a line of traffic. When you are fighting for that pack of toilet paper, or judging that person who looks different to you. Remember that we have far more in common than we realise. Inside every one of us is a conscious mind struggling to make sense of it all, managing as best as it can with the hand that fate dealt. Yes, we are different in so many ways, and we can cherish our individuality, but together we represent the future.

A future where we celebrate our diversity in the knowledge that on the surface, in the middle, and deep down, we are really all the same.

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