Enjoying the Differences

Eknath Easwaran

Diversity is a part of life. If all of us thought and spoke and acted alike, the world would be about as interesting as a condominium with every room the same. Fortunately, we come from different homes, go to different schools, hold different jobs, and have been exposed to different influences. Naturally, when we get together in close relationships, we differ in all kinds of ways. If we are going to love, we have to accept difficult relationships; that is life. But this is not a matter for resignation. When you love, you live among difficulties not with resignation but with rejoicing.

The secret of this is profoundly simple: these differences amount to no more than one percent of who we are. We have ninety-nine percent in common. When all you see is the one percent of difference, life can be terribly difficult. But when you see the much larger whole, you will see that we all have the same fears, the same desires, the same hopes, the same human foibles. Instead of separating us, the one percent of superficial difference that remains makes up the drama of life.

When I came to the University of California on my first visit to this country, I remember going to a little store on Telegraph Avenue and asking for some half-and-half. In India we learned British English, of course, so I pronounced the words as the English do, with broad a’s, as in father: “ha’f and ha’f.” The man just stared. “What?” I repeated myself: “I would like some half-and-half.” He couldn’t understand. Finally he went and got his wife, who fortunately was a little more patient. She brought me a little carton and explained, “You’ll have to excuse my husband. You see, we say it ‘haffen haff.’”

That is all the difference between us. Isn’t there a song, “You say ‘tomayto’ and I say ‘tomahto’; let’s call the whole thing off ”? That is all most quarrels amount to. If you can keep your eyes on what we have in common, you will find that most quarrels disappear.

You can anticipate other people’s behavior and help them change it, too, if you only remember that the other person has feelings that are just as easily hurt as yours are. He, too, appreciates it when other people are kind. She, too, appreciates it when you are patient, even if she herself is irritating; in fact, she is ninety-nine percent you. Being with people who are different is not only unavoidable; it is a precious, vital necessity. Without the company of those who differ from us, we grow rigid and narrow-minded.

Listening with Kindness and Respect

In every disagreement – not only in the home, but even at the international level – I would say it is really not ideological differences that divide people. It is lack of respect, which I would call lack of love. Most disagreements do not even require dialogue; all that is necessary is a set of flash cards. If Nick wants to make a point with Nora, he may have elaborate intellectual arguments to buttress his case, but while his mouth is talking away, his hand just brings out a big card and shows it to her: “I’m right.” Then Nora flashes one of hers: “You’re wrong!” You can use the same cards for all occasions, because that is all most quarrels amount to.

What provokes people in a quarrel is not so much facts or opinions, but the arrogance of these flash cards. Kindness here means the generous admission – not only with the tongue but also with the heart – that there is something in what you say, just as there is something in what I say. If I can listen to you with respect, it is usually only a short time before you listen with respect to me.

Finding the Common Ground

For Gandhi, love and selfless action were one. “I don’t want to be at home only with my friends,” he said, “I want to be at home with my enemies too.” It wasn’t a matter of speaking; he lived it out through forty years of solid opposition.

The other day I saw some documentary footage of Gandhi with a prominent political figure who opposed him so relentlessly that people said he had a problem for every solution Gandhi offered. These scenes were shot in 1944, when the two leaders met for a series of talks in which literally millions of lives were hanging in the balance. It took my breath away to see Gandhi treating his opponent with the affection one shows an intimate friend. At the beginning of each day’s discussions, the man’s face would be a mask of hostility; at the end of the day, both men would come out smiling and joking. Then, by the next morning, the man would have frozen over again, and Gandhi would start all over with the same cheerful patience, trying to find some common ground.

That is how the mystic approaches conflict, and it pulls the rug out from under all the traditional theories. There is a lot being written these days about conflict resolution, which I am glad to see. But no matter what you read, they will always say in effect, “This is how you deal with your opponent.” Gandhi, Saint Francis, Saint Teresa would all say, “No. The moment you start thinking about the other person as an opponent, you make it impossible to find a solution.” There are no opponents in a disagreement; there are simply two people facing a common problem. In other words, they are not in opposite camps. They are in the same camp: the real opponent is the problem.

To apply this, you have to set aside the question of who is to blame. We have a saying in my mother tongue: “It takes two to get married and two to quarrel.” No matter what the circumstances, neither person bears sole responsibility for a quarrel. It is an encouraging outlook, because if both are responsible, both together can find a solution – not merely a compromise, but a way to resolve the quarrel peacefully.

To do this, it is necessary to listen – and listen with respect. For how can you end a quarrel if you do not even hear what the quarrel is about? How can you solve a problem with two sides if you never hear what the other side is? More than that, if you can’t listen to the other person with detachment, you will not have the detachment to understand your own position objectively, either. It’s not just one side of the problem you can’t see; it’s both. So listen with respect: it may hurt you, it may irritate you, but it is a healing process.

Gradually, if you can bear with this, you will find that you are no longer thinking about “my point of view” and “your point of view.” Instead you say, “There is a point of view that is common to you and me, which we can discover together.” Once you can do this, the quarrel is over. You may not have reached a solution – usually, in fact, there is a lot of hard work left to do. But the quarrel itself is over, because now you know that there are two of you playing on the same side against the problem.

Unite Against the Problem

Years ago, I watched the Brazilian athlete Pelé play his last game of soccer. He was retiring at the peak of his career, one of the best soccer players the world has seen, and in this last game he was playing with the New York Cosmos against a team for which he had scored his most memorable goals: Santos of Brazil. For the first half of the game, Pelé played his best for the Cosmos. But the second half had a brilliant touch: he joined his opponents and played his best for them. This is what we should do in a disagreement: play half the time for the other side, half the time for our own. It is not a question of sacrificing principles; this is the only way to see the whole.

If we could see the game more clearly – and the results were not so tragic – the spectacle of a quarrel would make us laugh. When we played soccer in my village, one of my cousins used to get so excited that he would shoot the ball into his own goal. We used to say, “Never mind the other side; watch out for Mandan.” When two people quarrel, that’s just what they are doing – scoring against their own side. Whatever the disagreement, we are the home team, the Cosmos – all of us. Our problems, whether personal, national, or environmental, are the visitors. And the mystics say simply, “Support your team. There is the opponent, down at the other end of the field. Unite against the problem; don’t go scrapping among yourselves.”

Otherwise, there are no winners in this game. Once we divide against ourselves, whether at home or between races or nations, there can only be losers. On the other hand, there is no disagreement so serious that it cannot be set right if both sides can join hands and work hard for a common solution. It is not at all easy, and the results will not be immediate. But wherever there is hatred, complete love can be established; wherever there is conflict, complete unity can be established. The choice is up to us.

Dealing with Dislikes

My granny had a direct, daring way of dealing with someone to whom one is allergic: try sitting down next to that person and starting up a pleasant conversation. You do not need to stay long; five casual minutes will do. It is the effort that counts. It may be painful at the time, but miraculously, over time, you are likely to find your allergy subsiding – not only with regard to that particular person, but also toward anybody who happens to be discourteous to you or who contradicts you. This simple skill will improve your health, your vitality, and ultimately even your physical appearance; for the mind in turmoil takes away from the beauty of our face, the beauty of our movements, the beauty of our voice, the beauty of our life.

On the other hand, always making yourself the frame of reference – which is precisely what having strong likes and dislikes means – is comparable to spending the day being thrown like a Frisbee between conflicts. By evening you will be more tense than before and so exhausted that you cannot face the problems you have created for yourself.

Instead of allowing the mind to spin its numberless wheels, it is in our own best interest to extend ourselves by working hard and giving as much time and energy as we can to other people. If you want a good friend, don’t think about yourself. Be a good friend to all, think about the needs of everybody else, and you will be your own best friend.

Kind Always

“Love suffers long and is kind,” Saint Paul says. This word – kind – is so simple that we seem to have forgotten what it means; it opens a great avenue of love.

Most of us can be kind under certain circumstances – at the right time, with the right people, in a certain place. Otherwise we simply stay away. We avoid someone, change jobs, leave home; if we have to, we move to Southern California. But as Jesus says, being kind when it is easy to be kind is not worthy of much applause. If we want to be kind always, we have to move closer to difficult people instead of moving away.

Thérèse of Lisieux, a charming saint of nineteenth-century France who died in her early twenties, was a great artist at this. In her convent, there was a senior nun whose manner Thérèse found offensive in every way. Like many of her sister nuns, I imagine, all that she wanted was to avoid this unfortunate woman. But Thérèse had daring. Where everyone else would slip away, she began to go out of her way to see this woman. She would speak kindly to her, sometimes bring her flowers, give her her best smile, and in general “do everything for her that I would do for someone I most love.” Because of this love, the woman began to grow secure and to respond.

One day, in one of the most memorable scenes in Thérèse’s autobiography, this other nun goes to Thérèse and asks, “Tell me, Sister, what is it about me that you find so appealing? You have such love in your smile when you see me, and your eyes shine with happiness.” Her very image of herself has changed; for the first time in her life, perhaps, she has begun to think, “I must be a lovable woman!” That is the healing power of kindness.

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