Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-French author, wrote about the role of identity in our lives. He talks about the many layers of identity each of us carries within ourselves which form a blend to create each person’s individual and very unique personhood. The book explores the need to accept our different identities without forcing them into bland uniformity bereft of color and nuance, and to honor this diversity while tapping into the universal desires and dignities that exist across religion, color, nationality, gender or any other consideration.
The idea that there can be universality without uniformity is a useful framework for our times, where we continually bump into those with experiences and identities different from ours. I’d like to apply this idea to a few other fundamentals of being human:
- We all need sleep but each person has different requirements. Do you sleep early or late, need 6 hours or 9, prefer a hard mattress or soft-as-clouds bed?
- We all want to feel safe but what makes each of us feel safe differs. Is it healthy parents, a caring partner, well-established children, good health, ample money in the bank, a home in your name, or a full fridge?
- We all need meaningful human connection but vary in the quantity and the source; the frequency of interaction, the makeup of social circles, and volume of people we crave varies.
- We all crave respect but what makes us feel respected may be different. Do we need cultural, verbal or physical gestures? Recognition in front of others, or a raise?
- We all hope for growth and to be the most that we can be but how we invite that growth into our lives varies. Do we want to read more books per year, travel, run a marathon, get comfortable with public speaking, or raise a thoughtful child?
- We all crave to understand the purpose of human existence at some point in our lives but we seek those answers and wisdom in different ways and through different lineages.
Skimming the surface of relationships makes us push for uniformity, which can create further disconnect, whereas staying aware of our underlying universality can help open new ways of seeing and relating.
Imagine each of us as a plant. Here’s a rose and there’s an oak tree. A rose cannot be an oak no matter how hard it tries and the only way to create an oak forest is to suppress all roses contained in the soil. Using uniformity as society’s primary tool for cohesion is like wanting a forest lacking in biodiversity; it drives us towards a world with very few expressions of humanity. But when we tap into universality, we get rooted into the omnipresent core within each of us and start seeing the other as yet another expression of humanity rather than a threat. Universality can help us see that underneath the collective soil, the rose and the oak tree might hold hands one day.
“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” ― Edward Everett Hale