Do you have anybody in your life who is just totally different than you?
Now think about it for a minute – is it wonderful that they’re different? Is it horrible that they’re different? Is it confusing or satisfying or terrifying that they’re different? Or is it some combination of all those things?
Differences are interesting. They are everywhere; we’re always navigating them. How you think about and respond to differences with other people will make a massive difference in your own life.
Now, some people hear the word different and react positively. They’re encouraged, drawn in, and love the idea. Other people are more neutral, and it does not concern them. Then there are other people when they think about, encounter, or anticipate experiencing something different; it might immediately conjure up something negative.
We all have a way of responding whether you’re the person that’s energized by new things, different people, ideas, places, or maybe you’re naturally restrictive and prefer routines, similarities, and predictability.
No matter where you land, we are all left to navigate this world as we run into different people. These differences affect how we connect, commit to one another, and how we’re able to enjoy or celebrate one another.
What is the good part of differences?
If you’ve ever felt that rush, that instant chemistry, and attraction when you meet someone new, you are most likely intoxicated and flooded with the unconscious recognition of someone other than you. Someone different. The response that we have, emotionally, relationally, and physiologically, is electrifying. Most of us do not have that response when we meet someone who is just like ourselves because most of us don’t need any more of ourselves. We are already full of ourselves.
A less mature, less developed, less dynamic version of a healthy community is a clique. Do you remember junior high? Do you remember seventh and eighth grade? Almost everybody is insecure about nearly everything. Junior high is a season of development. Differences either made you a superhero or a target, right?
I remember being at a mall shopping mall and seeing three girls. They appeared to be junior high age as they walked through the mall. They wore matching black tee-shirts with large, white, dramatic print that read Dare To Be Different! As they walked side by side, their confidence conflicted in a way that can only happen in junior high. They wanted to be different but wear the same shirt for a little extra support.
Dare To Be Different.
I smiled and imagined their conversation…
“Oh my gosh, look at this shirt! Dare to be different. I love this shirt.”
And her friend replied with, “Oh my gosh, I love that shirt too. I want to get a dare to be different shirt.”
And maybe the third girl coming in and saying, “Well, if you guys are going to wear that shirt, I’ll also wear it. Let’s all dare to be different together.”
Yeah, let’s do that.
I think there’s part of us that probably always carries a conflicted sense of wanting to be a unique person. Wanting to recognize and express some element of who we individually and uniquely are.
At the same time, feeling uncertain about the support we’ll get or what will happen if we run into other people who are different than us. In junior high, we are sorting through changes in our bodies and relationships, feelings, hopes, and fears. It’s a developmental stage designed to bring us into a fuller experience of ourselves.
The good news is we’re not supposed to stay stuck in that stage. We’re not supposed to stay in a place that the only support we get is if we’re clones of one another. We need to recognize that the differences that appear in junior high are just differences and not defects.
Those differences are a part of a good design, indicating our uniqueness. We don’t need to be the same. We can measure our own authentic, unique self. We’re invited to go past the place of fearing, hurting, and editing ourselves so that we don’t blend in with everyone else. We are designed to recognize and embrace our uniqueness to grow into more mature people. It doesn’t erase the differences between us. Instead, we are to recognize and respond to differences with each other rather than react and reject.
If we can move past our early instincts to reject differences into appreciating differences, we will find more fullness and freedom.
Differences have a way of alarming us or triggering a sense of uncertainty, apprehension, or guardedness. Our bodies have immune systems designed to recognize what’s part of our body and protect them against anything that might come in that is not part of our body. It has a very immediate, intense fear response that triggers an emotional, relational, and social response. Sometimes it triggers fear, which is a quick-to-respond emotion.
Fear will get in front and preoccupy almost every other feeling we have. It’ll stake out the ground, and begin to direct our thoughts and feelings. Once the fear response alarm kicks in, it directs what happens after that. Our fear response has a protective function when there’s a legitimate danger. However, it can also be triggered by differences that can have unproductive and have unintended consequences.
Fear, in terms of our intentions, can do two things. It can make us very either hypervigilant or hyperfocused. We scan the horizons, look for a threat, and are super attentive to everything and everyone in the environment that could potentially expose, damage, or threatened us.
The other thing fear can do is make us hyper-focused; when we pay too much attention to something right in front of us. We are looking, listening, and evaluating everything. We analyze every transaction, every word, and body language. Hyper-focus can steal our joy and create distraction and discouragement.
Most of the differences between people are not deadly or life-threatening, but our reactions can quickly become destructive. When we see something familiar, we usually try to name it or come up with some explanation to make sense of it. Our brain does this naturally.
Hyper-focus can also set us up to be unproductive. For example, if you’re a person who’s more warm and gregarious and you smile when you walk into a room, and the people present don’t smile back, there’s a good chance you will generate some explanation as to why.
Your normal is to smile and look at another person. If it were you sitting in the chair, you would smile and look back. However, that person didn’t. They didn’t act in the way you would respond. Our brains are always trying to make sense of situations. Why did that person not smile back? Possibly, you know, they’re mad about me being in this room and are somehow offended that I’ve come in. In effect, they are saying that I’ve disturbed the peace by sitting down.
If we continue down that narrative, we could be feeling a sense of violation and injustice because the person didn’t smile back at us. They think they’re better than me because they didn’t even acknowledge me. They’re sitting over there thinking negative or dismissive thought about me.
We can spin scenario after scenario trying to interpret, trying to explain, and figure out what’s going on in a person—we spend a ton of time trying to explain something to ourselves.
If we don’t know how to navigate differences, we start to avoid people who are different. Avoidance is a dance, a wicked dance. It locks us into a separate and judgmental posture that creates a perception which cycles and recycles through our relationships. Avoidance ensures that there’s no clarity, resolution, or connection. Once it starts, it’s easy to continue that process.
Differences can also begin a comparison game in your head. If you decide that your differences make you better or more superior, you’re likely to become self-inflated. If the differences between you and another make you less than, you might feel emotionally flooded, battle insecurity or doubt your contribution. The perception that you’re superior or inferior will isolate you from other people and leave you thinking too much or too little of yourself.
The comparison game is a bad game that ruins friendships, relationships, and working partnerships that we have with one another.
Our differences can be a beautiful part of life that can open us up to more possibilities. If there’s nothing more substantial in your relationship than your differences, your differences will likely pull you apart. Once you’re pulled apart, you may conclude that your differences created your destiny and that it was meant to be.
But what if differences are just differences? What if they weren’t the most substantial thing? What if a force and the relational physics that operated between friends, teams, and communities held people together who had stark differences? If that were true, it would be magical and marvelous, and it would change all the rules that we live by. It would redefine what is possible. What if we live like that in our everyday relationships? What kind of world would we create for ourselves and others?
Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth made a straightforward and bold proclamation invitation-this is a new commandment that I give to you that you love one another. Bold and direct words.
A new command I give to you that you love one another.
Something powerful happens when we bring value into our relationships and learn to coexist with our differences. The word another means, “one more.” We are invited into the process of learning how to love one another.
One of the first-century followers of Jesus, Peter, wrote an epistle to love another deeply from the heart. A few chapters later, in chapter four, he said, “above all, love each other deeply from the heart because love covers a multitude of sin.”
A multitude of misses.
A multitude of mistakes.
It’s a simple invitation, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy because differences can separate us and intimidate us. Differences can make us feel defensive and guarded, and to bring love into that kind of environment requires an intentional process.
Differences create tension, which can be a very good thing as long as we are intentional about it. The word intentional is the opposite of avoidance. It means to step into the tension. When we pretend there aren’t differences, we avoid tension. When we pretend that things are fine, when they’re not, we avoid the uncomfortable feelings generated from our differences. When we’re not in the tension, we’re preventing the tension.
If we can intentionally vote ourselves in and can step into the tension, we have a different space to operate in. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. We don’t have to reconcile our differences, but we do have to recognize our differences and decide if we can carry them together. Love is what makes it possible. Love invites us into that space. It doesn’t resolve our differences; it integrates them in a way that is more than what we are bringing together in the process. Love holds our differences and releases a capacity that only comes from the fusion of two different things.
One of our favorite dive restaurants in Phoenix is a place called Chino Bandido. It’s been there for about 30 years. It was started by a husband and wife team, in a strip mall that is not beautiful. In the middle of this strip mall is their restaurant, a fusion of two very different things: Chinese and Mexican food. The Chinese portion of the meal allows you to pick what meat you would like to have, including everything from Tsao Chicken to Chinese barbecue pork. The Mexican portion enables you to choose rice, a burrito, or whatever you want.
When you take traditional Chinese and Mexican food items and combine them, you get more than just good Mexican food or Chinese food. If you come to Phoenix, Arizona, and you’re willing to spend six bucks, you can have a fusion experience, which is beatiful and tasty.
It’s beautiful because two different foods are put together in love to create something unexpected, messy, and hard to explain.
Differences do not have to separate us.
Differences do not have to intimidate.
Differences do not have to keep us apart.
They can be blended.
They can be fused.
They can be recognized.
They can be carried together.
So what are you doing with differences in your life?
The people that you’re meeting and you’re talking to, how do you handle the differences?
When you’re with your spouse, how do you navigate your differences? How do you think about them?
How are you talking to yourself about them?
What would it be to love someone different?
What would it be to love and care for them in their difference?
What would it look like to operate from a place that while they’re different from you, they’re still valuable, and you can engage them without changing them?
You don’t have to change for your relationship to be good, rich, and real, because something beautiful can hold you together.