Most people wrongly believe that it’s what others say and do, and what happens that makes them feel the way they do. But it’s really what we choose to think about such things, and in response to them.
One simple but important choice we have is what we focus on.
I’ve always believed we have an innate cognitive tendency to note and focus on differences between us and others. It makes evolutionary sense. Other species have this too. In an eat-or-be eaten world, this tendency can be vital. In our distant past, our survival was much more dependent on our gene pools, which were fine tuned over eons to maximize survival. Any phenotype difference could have represented a threat to the pool and survival
Cultures get fine tuned over time for the same reason – to maximize survival. Introducing any different belief or behavior into an established culture could trigger this same innate cognitive tendency.
In Charlottesville, we saw people carrying torches who focused on ways we differ. Now in Houston, we see black adults carrying white children, and white adults carrying black children to safety. That’s focusing on what we have in common, ways we are alike instead of different.
Periodically, we have a blockbuster sci-fi movie like “Independence Day” where our species is threatened by aliens that look dramatically different from us. In those movies, we all unite to battle the external threat together. The many human “tribes” focus on what we have in common, and set aside ways we differ.
But too often, we create conflict because we focus on ways in which we differ. It happens at all different levels, from interpersonal to international.
It’s a shame it takes a disaster to get us to focus on what we have in common, ways we are alike. We really do have so much more in common, so many more ways we are all alike, than we do ways we differ. That's true from the DNA level on up.
We need to do more to help kids see all the many ways they are alike, the way we all are alike. And encourage them to choose to focus on that instead of ways we sometimes differ. Of course, we have to start with adults.
Unfortunately, we have some in our society, and around the world, who are encouraging people to note and focus the differences between them and other human beings. We've got a number of them in the White House. It's certainly not the first time in human history we've had that, and sadly it probably won't be the last.