We see differences, but do we respect them?

by Kristin on March 6, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by daspader

It’s standardized test week at my daughters’ school, so at breakfast Monday morning I made sure to dispense of not just an extra healthy breakfast, but also some test-taking advice.

As I thought of which nugget of wisdom to share with the girls—a reminder that would aid them without overwhelming them—I realized they each needed their own, tailored advice. To my eighth grader Q, who is energetic and always sure of herself, I said, “Don’t go too fast.” To S, my more tentative sixth grader who is prone to over-thinking things, I said “Don’t go too slow—trust your gut and keep moving.”

I’ve been struck, again and again as I raise my girls, by how vastly different two same-gender kids from the same gene pool can be. Not only do they tend to need different things when, for instance, they’re grumpy—Q needs sleep and solitude; S needs food and snuggles—they also need opposing advice as they go to school to take essentially the same tests! And it’s not a matter of intelligence, as their scores tend to be very similar; it’s a matter of how differently they approach and tackle things.

The bigger picture

I could take this idea in many directions, but here’s what I’m thinking about right now: If two sisters can be so different, just imagine how different two people who are of different genders and/or ethnicities, who grew up in different homes might be! And then add in a few more variables: when and where they grew up,  what educational and other opportunities were available to them, and if they had any type of religious upbringing.

It’s likely that none of this surprises you. Of course people are different—that’s obvious, right? It’s something that most people would agree on, but it’s not something most people act on. What’s fascinating to me is this: It isn’t just difficult for most of us to imagine things from another perspective, it’s challenging for us to admit that we need to try imagining things from other perspectives, and that those perspectives are valid. We naturally interpret the world around us through the lens we know best—our own. As a result, we unknowingly go around projecting our feelings onto everyone else’s lives.

There are hundreds of little ways we do this. If we hate eating alone in restaurants, for instance, we feel sorry for people we see eating alone, not understanding that it’s a simple pleasure for some. When you take this projection problem to other levels—issues of religion and politics, what freedom or happiness looks like, what constitutes a civil “right”—you begin to grasp why our culture is so divisive and angry. So many feel misunderstood, not seen or heard.

Understanding takes effort

So what are we to do? We can’t just magically get inside everyone else’s heads and emotions. But we can stop assuming they feel like us and see the world like we do. We can also learn to stop thinking they should see the world like we do. And in many cases, we have opportunities to ask how they feel, what they need, and how we can better understand. (This really comes into play when we are trying to “help” others. Our intentions might be pure, but our understanding is often clouded.)

Finally, we can teach our kids to expect and respect different perspectives, rather than expecting and respecting only sameness. I bet that in the process we’ll find we’re broadening our own sense of understanding and compassion.

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  • http://manypinksneakers.blogspot.com Sarah Louise

    how true. And since I averted a major disaster via email this morning by remembering differences and backspace backspace backspace, this post couldn’t have come at a better time.

    For the record: I do love eating alone in a restaurant, it is a treat. (Less so with my food allergies now, but yeah.) I love going to the movies alone. And I love these things even thought right now I have someone to share these activities with.

    Thanks for an insightful post and good luck to your girls. Those tests are vile.


  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Good stuff, Kristin. Part of the problem, I believe, is we approach such conversations thinking that we’re going to change the other person. Because, of course, WE’re right, they’re wrong. No good comes from that line of thinking. When we learn to see something from their point of view, we might not agree with their conclusion but we will approach the discussion quite differently. This is something I’m naturally good at, given my social work background. I can understand why someone has an opinion or belief they do, without ultimately agreeing with it. And because I can understand it (and hopefully they’re open to understanding me), we’re able to have insightful discussion.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sarah Louise, I think all kinds of major disasters could be averted if only we all remembered this basic truth! Good for you for keeping it in mind—it’s especially important to remember in all of our virtual interactions.

    HopefulLeigh, you bring up a great point about our efforts to change others (whether we try consciously or subconsciously). I think that was at the heart of many of the issues in my first marriage. The world needs more people like you—who are skilled at this level of insight and understanding, and can model it in the world.

  • http://troygrisgonelle.wordpress.com Troy Grisgonelle

    Very true, Kristin. I’ve noted how some people who claim to be tolerant are really only accepting themselves with minor variations – skin colour, accent, or nationality. When it comes to differences of opinion or worldview, they themselves can actually be more vitriolic than the people they claim are intolerant or bigots.

    Like what Leigh said, too. She’s correct (hoping by swift agreement to seem wise himself).