Between sameness and difference

Life’s diversity numbers in the many millions, and yet no two living things are exactly alike; all are heterogeneous. This is as true of oak trees and squirrels as it is of people, but the heterogeneous minds of people, particularly, generate many differing opinions. Among these opinions are those of many people who prefer homogeneity, the unity of sameness. So it is that human society is riven between those who favor sameness and those who do not.

The tension between the forces of diversity and unity, difference and sameness, belonging and excluding, forms humanity’s history and most probably its future, a baked-in by-product of nature herself. Successfully coping with our bifurcated inclinations remains humanity’s greatest challenge.

In his most recent book, The Matter with Things, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist uses 1,800 pages to document and describe our bifurcated mental and emotional world-experience. The tension between sameness and difference, he observes, reflects the experience and processing of our right- and left-brain hemispheres, the right oriented towards sameness/connection and the left towards difference/autonomy. How and to what extent each hemisphere inhibits the excesses of the other, he believes, drives the engine of humanity, its cultures and belief systems.

The interplay of sameness and difference in individuals resonate interpersonally, creating social and political movements, cultural trends, religious institutions, and ethical dilemmas particular to human beings that enable the survival of our species but also pose the greatest threat to its continuance.

If we view nature as the architect of this situation, we must conclude she is conducting an experiment, namely: will conscious self-awareness result in success or failure of our species? Given the present state of technology and weapons of mass destruction, it’s an open question.

We can see the dynamic tension playing out in matters of freedom; should people be free to express their individuality, adhere to certain ideas and reject others, or should people be forced to accept and live by rules imposed outside themselves? The proponents of homogeneity, the imposition of sameness, wear many costumes ranging from priestly to military and in-between; by some, sameness is imposed at the barrel of a gun.

In 1929, Sigmund Freud wrote “Civilization and Its Discontents” – its title alone describes our human situation in a nutshell. The particularity of our nature, of being human, resists confinement within the strictures of society. The natural wildness of our emotions is not easily contained, and never has been. When repressed, it leaks out, in violent anti-social behavior, for example. The best we can do is sublimate, accommodate ourselves to our situation, but how to do that is up to each individual. Being born does not come with an operating manual; ultimately, every person must figure out how to live with others for themselves.

Cultures try to instill values of unity, but approaches vary widely. Sometimes the promotion of unity comes at the cost of denigrating others while elevating the status of one group over another. Unity is sometimes promoted as a supernatural endeavor, that because human beings are sinners the unity of salvation is available only after death. Variations on the themes of sameness and difference are as numerous as humanity itself.

If we can mindfully recognize the tension within ourselves, argues McGilchrist, to see the reflections and operations of sameness and difference in our everyday experience, perhaps there’s hope we’ll find balance. It’s an age-old dilemma, but the stakes have never been higher.

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