u·nique /yo͞oˈnēk/ 1. being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else. synonyms: distinctive, individual, special, quirky, eccentric, isolated;
My mother-in-law is 94 and wonderful. Her hearing and eyesight are failing, but she is just making the best of what life is offering in this season of her life. Her assisted living center needs to put her on the payroll. Until a few months ago, she was the ringleader whenever there was a card game to be put together. She’d wait for less mobile residents to be brought in, and even, with her own walker bustling along at a healthy pace, she’d bring others to the table. She can’t see well enough to play cards anymore, so she leads group exercises. She has held the hands of friends and made the passage from this life to the next a tender parting.
I have always loved her various expressions. She doesn’t go to the basement, that is going “down cellar.” When confronted with something new and unfamiliar, her forehead furrows and she’ll say, “What next?” When we drove past a large manufacturing plant or office building, she’d say “Now that’s a big concern.”
One of the expressions that she has used as much as any other is to refer to something unusual, or something with which she is not familiar, or somehow unexpected as thus: “different.” Different, as is in, “Well, that’s different.” It’s usually not a compliment, it’s meant from the perspective of “Why does it have to be different, what’s wrong with the way it was?”
School was interesting to me, and I took it to be a time to (A) socialize and get to know a lot of people around me (B) pick up some really good tidbits of knowledge that would aid and abet me in becoming a persona non-grata in my family for Trivial Pursuit (C) learning how to read and write somewhat.
To be able to read is a gift that I shall be forever thankful for, and being able to write passably has helped me give vent to the scrambled, jumbled gray matter that lurks betwixt my ears.
Little did I realize that the teacher who first gave whatever class that I was in at the time an assignment on comparing and contrasting something would be imprinting upon me in a deep and profound way. If you have ever talked with me, corresponded with me, or been subjected to some of my writing in any fashion, you know that I can do that balancing act that probably drives people nuts… On the one hand, I can give you all kinds of reasons to be in favor of whatever, on the other hand, I can certainly see the point of view of those who feel that whatever makes them puke and don’t ever want it spoken of again.
Compare and contrast, one of those essential literary tools that has been around for ages.
It is a favorite among the communication tools in my toolbox, and I am fairly certain it has caused people who listen to me to think, with rising blood pressure “For God’s sake, get to the point!” (For a shining example of this nuanced form of thinking, read this piece from last year.) One of my pet phrases to describe something is to compare it to something else and end by saying “It’s the same, only different.”
The church where I work is part of a ministry organization that is comprised of two campuses. I work on one campus, which one could call “the mother ship,” and the other campus we refer to as our “downtown campus.” The mother ship is 150 years old, has a school of nearly 300 kids, is located out in a more rural area, has approximately 2,000 members and is fairly well known and respected in the community. The downtown campus is 10 years old, is on its third building, has a somewhat different age and family demographic and does things somewhat differently than the mother ship.
Unique and United
Both campuses share the same faith, some of the same leadership structure, finances, and overall strategy. Both seek to accomplish similar things and want everyone to go to heaven with a distinct message of faith. Instead of saying “Well you do this, and we do that, and you do things so much that way and we’ll never do it that way…” we look at things like this: We are united on some very basic, fundamental issues, and there are some very cool unique aspects to both places. Unique and united. United and unique.
This is a plea, I am begging, this is “my ask,” this is what I seek, crave, yearn for, dream of, would really, really be happy if this came to pass:
Let’s look at life this way – how are we unique, how are we united. Yes, I am encouraging everyone to be like me – on the one hand, we could look at this way, on the other hand, there are plenty of good reasons to look at the other way.
Oh, so I have to listen…
Notice that adopting this way of thinking and acting requires empathy. You have to develop a desire to see how things would be if you actually want to think about things other than the way they are or the way that you most earnestly desire them to be. To consider things to be unique if they are different than how one might expect, and to earnestly strive to find ways in which you are united in however many ways you are united. That requires effort as well, you may have to pause before shouting down an idea or someone expressing an idea that is somewhat foreign, odd, or hey, unique.
The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of expression. It does not guarantee that someone else’s freedom of expression is going to make you happy, feel safe or feel comfortable. It may be noxious, obnoxious or disgusting or discussion-worthy. Instead of rushing to destroy someone who may be speaking from a unique perspective, how about if you set about figuring out how you are united with that person, what do you have in common or what attributes are they expressing that actually have meaning to you, are there things that you could possibly agree with or at least not lose your lunch over, or are things of actual merit and substance?
Gee, should I ask a question?
Questions… some see them as accusations, as fingers pointing at you, wagging at your perceived oversight or shortcomings. Questions are really a quest to find common ground, seeking understanding, and show a healthy curiosity about the topic at hand. That’s a whole different discussion for another day. But for the time being, ask questions, and try to moderate your tone so that to whomever the questions are being directed understand that you are really seeking information, wisdom, and enlightenment.
The topics come at me from all angles. Agreeing to Disagree. How to Disagree without being Disagreeable, Civil Discourse is possible. But hold on there Buckeroo… let’s just finish this one. How are we unique and yet how can we remain united? It will require some effort. All of us were endowed with a sense of humor, let’s remember to exercise it when some potentially difficult topics come up.
The takeaways, because you skipped all that busy text
Here are some ground rules (and I’m pretty sure that we can agree on these, right?):
📌 When areas of uniqueness are front and center, remember that it would totally suck for us all to be the same. Boring, no chance of complementing each other’s skills and strengths… Variety is good.
📌 Because variety is good and we respect each other’s uniqueness, insults and name-calling are never a part of the discourse. If you want an echo of your own thoughts, ideas and feelings, grab a mirror and talk to your own self.
📌 Listen for meaning and for opportunities to find ways in which you are united. Don’t listen to load your quiver with quick and witty responses, listen so that you understand. The weakest argument always seeks to silence any opposition. Be a good audience and hear what is being said in its entirety.
📌 Partial disagreement does not have to mean total disagreement. Do not throw out all their perspective because you might disagree (even vehemently) with some of what is being said.
📌 Be generous, look for ways to be united. Pull in your fangs when you hear one thing that sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard; it doesn’t make them a total (pick your descriptive adjective: imbecile, idiot, Nazi, butthead, moron…)
Different is not wrong, unfamiliar is not crazy, unique is good. If we take a deep breath and make that little mental exercise about analyzing something from the standpoint of “compare and contrast,” we might see many opportunities to agree than to disagree. We can be unique and united.