Which one are you?
You walk into your favorite restaurant, and you sit down at a table. The server hands you a menu, and after studying the menu carefully, you: A) order the same thing as last time, or B) order something different?
Recently, my husband and I went to a Thai restaurant. I am not a prophet nor a daughter of one, but I could predict that my husband would order chicken satay for an appetizer. That’s right . . . He belongs to group A. When I asked him his reasoning, he said, “I don’t like risk.” In other words, there are no questions or uncertainty but instead predictability and stability. Now, I confess, I usually gravitate towards group B. You know . . . the one who says, “Choose something different, Pam. You only live once. So . . . go ahead . . . live a little . . . even if it is only selecting a new item off the menu. Live dangerously!” Of course, this has its own hurdles. I find myself time and time again paralyzed by choice. If I say “yes” to one thing, then that means I am saying “no” to something else. Oh, what to do? What to do? On this particular day, would you believe that while my husband was predictable by ordering the same appetizer, I, too, was predictable when I ordered my main course? It’s true. You see, when I go to a Thai restaurant, I cannot seem to order anything but curry. Oh, I get tempted by ginger chicken or something like spicy Thai basil chicken, but in the end, I end up with curry. I may change it up a little: Beef for chicken. Red curry for green. But my ultimate favorite is panang curry, and if it appears on the menu, I am like a moth to flame: I cannot say “no.”
Oh, how we gravitate toward the familiar. We like it. It is comfortable. It is safe. Cozy. Secure. Like a newborn being held by Mom, we like the security sameness brings. An infant believes, “Mom and I are one. Mom is an extension of me,” as Margaret Mahler’s theory holds. This is security at its finest. It is not until after five months or so that baby begins to realize, “Hey, you are different from me! You take a shower and leave me in my crib. I wake up, and you are not there.” Such a realization brings tears. Anxiety. A lack of security. This separation, or difference, is not safe. Yet . . . it is through difference that we learn, “I am not you. You are not me.” It is through difference that we learn who we are.
Consider, for instance, mathematics. Remember as a kid being presented with four objects and being told to identify which one of these is not like the other? Remember that little ditty from Sesame Street?
One of these things is not like the other.
One of these things doesn’t belong.
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish this song?
Difference, then, becomes an important part of our human development by teaching us to say: I am me. You are you. You are not me. I am not you.
But somewhere along the line, we come to believe that difference means less than. How this happens, I am not sure. After all, when we study mathematics, what does the following equation communicate: A ≠ B, C, nor D? It simply says that A is not equal to B or C or D. It does not say, A is less than B, C, or D. When ≠ is used, it does not mean: A < B; A < C; or A < D. Simply put: ≠ is not the same as <.
In spite of the rule of mathematics, we still have this human tendency to believe that ≠ is the same as <. Let us be honest with ourselves: human history repeatedly plays this out, and we do not need to look very far into our history to observe it. If there is a different race or ethnicity, the race or ethnicity with power has oppressed the other. Unfortunately, if the one who has been oppressed is able to gain the position of power, the oppressed usually becomes the oppressor. And the pattern tragically continues. The difference may be in age groups, such as the young and strong dominating the children and the elderly. It may be a difference between genders. It is no secret that the subjugation of gender and of children continues today as human trafficking remains a real issue. In American suburbia, women and children are being used as human slaves, including for labor or for sex.
Too often, the merely different becomes the less than, the voiceless.
As I reflected on the idea of difference, my mind was drawn to that of being a child once again. While we sang “which one of these things is not like the other,” at some point we embraced another song “difference is equal to less than.” Many of us as adults recall our own stories of when difference was equated to less than. Maybe we were the child who was different, the less than. And just maybe we were the child with the power, the greater than. A girl’s clothes were deemed not the latest fashion. A boy was seen as not the fastest or the strongest. A girl was labeled as not thin enough. The boy was considered not bright enough. Her skin was a different color. His religion was unfamiliar. A child’s grades may be too high, or a child’s grades may be too low. It was as if there was a dance, but the steps to the dance were unclear. Only those with the power seemed to know the dance steps for the day. Thus, on any given day, a child may remain clueless as to why his or her uniqueness was seen as . . . less than.
How this evolves, I am not sure. It could be our natural aversion to uncertainty and our longing to be secure. I mean, experiencing something different is risky, and if we have an aversion to risk, then we are more likely to opt for predictability. According to attachment theory, we are hard-wired for a desire for a secure base; thus, uncertainty presents a certain amount of anxiety, generating a longing for security. Perhaps we seek to gain that security by asserting our power over those who are different, becoming the greater than.
Difference does not need to engender a power differential. It can be utilized to create power with. Consider my previous blog on empathy in which sympathy sees us as the same, but empathy views both the similarities and differences. Difference, then, is included in the means to encourage the other through the expression of empathy; it is part of the vehicle to empower the other through validation and communication that “You matter.”
If you are a Christ-follower as I am, difference is repeatedly seen in Scripture and in our theology.
Consider 1 Corinthians 12:14-18:
For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided.
It is here we see that the body of Christ has different members, and the beauty is found in the differences.
In the Gospel of John, difference is utilized as a literary device. There are two individuals with encounters with Jesus in chapters 3 and 4.
|Chapter 3||Chapter 4|
|Pharisee, ruling member of Sanhedrin||Married 5x, living with a man|
Here the Gospel writer uses two stories, inviting us to pay attention to the details by way of difference. Two religious conversations, yet different. Interestingly, the one we might naturally view as less than (the Samaritan woman) is the very one to whom Jesus reveals he is the Messiah and is the one who is used via her testimony to cause others to come and see Jesus.
The Gospel itself embodies difference. It is the Good News of God, who is not us, embracing humanity by becoming human while still remaining God. That is, God walks among humanity as the person Jesus Christ, the one who is the human-divine one. Jesus Christ, then, becomes an expression of God’s empathy: embracing difference and similarity.
Theologically, orthodox Christianity holds to the doctrine of a triune Godhead, in which the Trinity consists of homogeneity and diversity; thus, we could say that when we embrace the differences of the each other in the catholic church (the whole body of Christ), we are reflecting the imago Dei. We are reflecting the beauty in difference.
So, my invitation to us is: May we resist the pull of our culture that says difference = less than. Instead, today, may we see how we may participate in the ministry of Jesus Christ through the presence and power of the Spirit by embracing difference, seeing its beauty.
Oh, and in case you were wondering . . . I ordered the panang curry.