“He who is different from me does not impoverish me — he enriches me. Our unity is constituted in something higher than ourselves — in Man... For no man seeks to hear his own echo, or to find his reflection in the glass.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The child stared at the man who looked so different than he did. “Mommy, what’s wrong with him?” he asked.
The man’s skin was discolored, not completely brown or white. The child looked frightened of the difference in him. How many times had people stared at him and children pointed at him?
If you’ve ever felt that you (or your child) were different, you need to hear de Saint-Exupéry’s words. If you’ve ever been bothered by people who don’t look like you or walk like you or dress like you, you need to hear de Saint-Exupéry’s words. People who are different than we are do not impoverish us, but instead enrich us.
Standing at the service window, I was very aware of how different I sounded and possibly looked. “Why are you entering the country?” the woman asked me. With the long line of people behind me, I felt hurried to respond and simply said, “Just to enjoy your country.”
I wish I had had de Saint-Exupéry’s quote in hand, and I could have said that I wanted to be enriched as I sought something other than my own reflection. Ireland was, indeed, a place to be enriched, and in her borders, I found something higher than myself. I knew I was different and being different doesn’t mean being wrong.
“If you say the sky is blue, half of Facebook will argue that it is not.” It’s a common statement from my family because whatever I share on social media seems to draw such a mixture of responses. That makes me happy most of the time because I don’t want to hear just my voice. I want to hear from people and know people who think differently than I do, because I believe I can learn from them. It is uncomfortable at times because, after all, who wants to think that their way of thinking might be wrong? But being different doesn’t mean being wrong.
Wrong is a word too easily used when people don’t think or behave as we do. I could tell you that in Ireland they drive on the wrong side of the road, but that wouldn’t be a fair statement. People in Ireland drive on the other side of the road and from the other side of the car, and that is simply different from what we do in the United States.
I loved being in a place where things are different (and was thankful we had someone else doing the driving). Being different doesn’t mean being wrong.
It took me a lot of years to be brave enough to obtain a passport and a couple more years to agree to leave the country all because I was afraid of what I didn’t know, of how different things would be, but then I remembered what matters so much to me — that being different doesn’t mean being wrong. Finally, I knew I must travel because:
• I was tired of being surrounded by people just like me (Americanized)
• I wanted to be exposed to a culture that was different than mine (Democrat and Republican)
• I wanted to see and hear the richer history we don’t have yet in the United States (though we have much, I know)
• I wanted to walk on land settled several thousand years ago
• I wanted to challenge myself not to be afraid of being different
I’m so glad we went, so thankful I could move beyond my fears to allow myself the opportunity to experience so much that enriched me, that took me out of the echo chamber and away from my reflection. Oddly enough, you and I can do much of that right here where we are. We can let go of fears of people and cultures who are different within our own communities and within our own country and know that people can be different without being wrong.
You and I are not experiencing fears that are new to people. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry lived in France in the early 1900s and penned his words at a time much different than we live in today, yet he knew even then that we are not impoverished by those who are different but are enriched, and that is why we cannot give in to the mindset that our way of anything is the only right way.
If leaving the country isn’t an option, open a history book, watch a documentary, try foods of another culture, find ways to know people who are different from you instead of feeling threatened by them, and discover the unity that is constituted in something larger than yourself.
Note: After an unusual couple of weeks, I decided to share this piece with you I wrote several years ago. For this week, it seemed perfect. It’s a little shorter (you’re welcome), and as I’m developing my plan to approach what commonality looks like, this piece seems perfect to share to help remind us of the things we often see as differences that we often discover unite us. And, as I sometimes laugh at myself about, I really loved being in Ireland!
I’ll have a fresh piece for you next week as we dive into commonality in the perfect place — birth, the beginning of all of our lives.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.