One perception of mine that has strengthened over the years is how different people are. When I was young, I thought of these differences mostly because of the difficulties they presented—how to talk to this girl, how to respond to a teacher, how to put up with a tedious relative. But after enough time it’s easier to sit back and enjoy the variations. People are a circus of performances, each of us with different things to say, different knacks and loves, different hostilities and indifferences, different politics, different ideas about big issues. The people we know the best, our closest friends and family, are different from each other in ways that we peer into more and more deeply over time. Even the youngest siblings, peas from the same pod, amaze their parents with their dissimilarity.
I asked a friend who is a therapist how he kept all his patients straight if he didn’t take notes. He said, “You know a lot of people. Do you ever get them mixed up?” We’re good at keeping people sorted out. We get along with most of them, we love some, and we try to forgive a few. We all understand that the differences among us are serious business because they determine how our lives will play out, and that how a life plays out will create more differences.
Compared to the richness of differences, the similarities among us sometimes seem few and familiar. As people like to say, down deep we’re all the same. Our common needs and fears are relatively small in number. They’re emotional and biological. We learn them profoundly and intensely but narrowly. They do justify the amazing claim that all people are created equal and endowed with the same rights. But day to day our brains track not the sameness among people but our differences as we look for signs of who we might connect to. We start at infancy, reading Mom’s face.
We gave up being identical a couple of billion years ago when our bacterial ancestors ceased cloning themselves and instead began mixing up their DNA through sex. Since then, diversity has been natural selection’s ace in the hole; if one combination of genes proves vulnerable, another might solve the problem. Humans have taken the generating of diversity a step further. In addition to the DNA variations, we have a brain inclined toward language, specialization, and complexity. The result is Nancy, Bill, Brett, Joanne, Florence, Ravi, Mike, Meredith, Doris, Kevin, Sandra….