Originally published here in March 2011, though this version has been thoroughly proofread and edited. The original was dashed off in a hurry, so I hope this revision demonstrates my editing abilities, if nothing else.
Human beings today seem to communicate primarily in two ways. We either share personal narrative, or we “debate”–though it does not merit the name. True debate is measured, calm, well-researched, and deliberate. What we have instead, coming from all sides, are name-calling, belittlement, anger, resentment, hatred, malice, insults, and every curse of hellish fate you can imagine.
These “debates” develop as we lose sight of our mutual humanity. We do this by mentally converting fellow human beings into labels, into abstractions. We call each other “liberal”, “conservative”, “gay”, “straight”, “Christian”, “Muslim”, “American”, “Chinese”, on and on it goes.
It is easy to go to war against an abstraction (why do you think they call them “casualties” and “collateral damage”, rather than “deaths”?), to oppress an abstraction, to abuse the rights of an abstraction. An abstraction does not share your breath and your DNA and your heartbeat. And if we behave as if the world consists of nothing but groups of abstractions, a “them”, and a small number that we call “us”, there’s nothing that to keep us from blowing “them” to smithereens. We should just drop the nukes and call it a day.
However, it does not have to be this way.
We may well be hardwired to think of each other in terms of our differences rather than our similarities. But we also have amazing minds that often transcend their wiring. What if we stretch our minds beyond the capacity to label? If our differences, and the way we use them to dehumanise each other, are speeding the destruction of our species, what are our similarities, and how might those similarities save us?
It’s not our genetics (for example, not all human beings have 46 chromosomes). It’s not our physical composition. It’s certainly not the way we look, dress, think, or believe. The one thing that all human beings share is Story.
By Story, I mean the personal narrative that each of us carries. It is the unique path that has brought us to where we are. It is the tale of our triumphs and tragedies, events both momentous and mundane, the things that shaped our decisions, beliefs, and character. Not only is Story the only thing that we all share, but, in a very real sense, it is the only thing that any of us has. You can lose your job, your home, your possessions, your family and friends, you can lose absolutely everything–but no-one and nothing can take away your Story.
So, if focussing on our differences hastens the destruction of our species, would focussing on the commonality of Story save it? First off, it is very easy for me to share my Story with someone who closely identifies with me–who shares my labels. The trick–for all of us–is to learn to transcend our boundaries in our sharing, to share with those who don’t share our labels, and to start seeing each other in terms of one label only: fellow human beings.
In this spirit, I am working hard not to engage in debate but to share Story. And I fail. A lot. But to keep trying in hopes of success is all I can do. And I know that I can’t force anyone to share their Story with me. But what I do know is that I’m not responsible for what others do, only what I do. And if I have the option of choosing actions that can make the world a worse place or a better place, I choose the latter.