Exactly Precisely the Same

I'm listening to Krista Tippett interview Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and he's reinforcing an idea that Sarah Kay, the spoken word poet, also shared with Krista:  

The only way for us to communicate universal truth is by sharing our individual experience.

 

The elemental, the universal, the true - it emerges from the particular.

 

We don't respond to the poet that speaks of love as a general or universal principle, we respond to the poet that most poignantly shares her individualized experience of love, her personal story.

 

When faced with the sensation that we our hopelessly distinct from others, it's easy to reach for our similarities, to search for common experiences that knit us together, to try and find universal truths. Sarah Kay and Rabbi Sacks say that we must do the opposite: we must find our differences in order to discover or similarities.

 

This concept is illuminating a conversation I had with one of my closest friend last night. We were discussing racial identities in America and exploring ways that we might overcome the violence and fear and hate that our country has endured. My friend suggested that we might just give up on racial distinctions. She pointed out that there is no one "Mexican-American" experience (they're all unique), and questioned whether this label was even useful. Why not just identify as Americans, full stop?

 

She's got me thinking about how I approach racial divides in our country.

 

I'm noticing that I dwell on our differences and how those differences separate us.

 

I, for instance, don't feel like I understand the African American experience. I was raised in a small, rural, predominately white community. I've lived there most of my life. I live still live there today. I worry that when I move to a large American city, it's going to be difficult for me to connect with my neighbours - what, after all, could I possible understand about growing up African American in a large American city? It feels so utterly different from my own experience and it feels like these differences would separate us, make it difficult for us to communicate.

 

So how to bridge these difference? My impulse is to search for common experiences, to look for things about us that are the same.

 

Rabbi Sacks suggests the opposite. He says that we must come together as distinct human beings, that we must dwell in our differences, in our particularity, in our uniqueness. We must focus on the differences and it is paradoxically this very process that will reveal our unity. Sharing our distinct experiences as Americans, dwelling in the particulars, exploring the distinctions - this is how we will find our common ground.

 

Our sharing must not be abstract, it must be concrete and particular.

 

It's only when we commit to this sharing of the particular that we will find the commonalities. Out of sharing our differences, we will discover that we all have families and friends that we love, that we all strive to find joyful, productive work to do in the world.

 

Because of course, I am nearly genetically identical to every African American living in every city in America. And of course, we live in the same country, have the same President. We speak the same language. We all experienced the national trauma of 9/11 together. We all laugh; we all love to eat sugary treats.

 

Of course, our experiences are similar, sometimes nearly identical. And also, they are very very different.

 

We are always both distinct and general, specific and universal. We are unique in the universe, we have never happened before. And also, we're exactly precisely the same as every other person that's ever walked the earth.