Three Empowering Ways We’re All the Same

6 min read
manuelamilani / Pixabay

Source: manuelamilani / Pixabay

Math and I have had an oil and water relationship.

When I was a kid in grade school, grinding through my homework was often akin to medieval torture (which, liking history quite a bit, I was happy to learn about).

Like the pain of math for me (and many) is the discomfort amid the conflict, resentments, polarization, and all-around communication stuckness in our daily dialogue. When it comes to the differences dividing us—race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, politics, socioeconomic, you name it—when differences are what is front and center, we consistently divide instead of connecting.

Understanding and respecting one another’s experience of difference is crucial. It just hasn’t been my observation as a psychologist that talking about and fixating on differences is where “we” is found.

In any (and every) given moment, instead of going nowhere together with a focus on how we are separated. How you believe, love, and live so distinctly, perhaps uneasily “over there” from me “over here.”

What if we looked (deeply and literally without reservation) at the commonalities, the universal Venn diagram overlap? What if my pain in doing (and feeling done in by) math might be an analogy (and suggested solution) for the pain of the gaps plaguing people?

The Fractions in All of Us

We are all fractions. Parts. Not just our body parts or even structures in our brains. Our minds are best viewed as consisting of multiple “parts.”

In the modern psychotherapy called internal family systems therapy (IFST), originally developed by Richard Schwartz, our mental “self” is really like a “family” with various members vying for a say in each moment based on situational demand.

This doesn’t mean we all have “multiple personalities.” It means that we are bundles of conditioning. We each have a unique aggregate of emotional, mental, and behavioral habit patterns aiming to maximize pleasure and minimize discomfort.

We are fractal. Our personalities are constellations, and culture, genetics, and life history shape us into singular human beings deserving of respect for what is uniquely ours.

And, if we give too much focus to naming the ways we’re different—pointing toward these “numerators” of uniqueness, specialness, me or us as distinct from you and them—we miss out on moments of possibility for untying knots in our relationships, our dialogue, our from-a-distance perceptions of one another.

Maybe we can both respect differences and better bridge our divides by noticing what may be universal and common to all humans in each moment—with tools within a process I call “momentology.”

Common Denominator 1: We all experience pleasure and pain and want the first to stay and the other to go away.

If you have a body and a mind, you experience pain and pleasure. Pain is necessary to receive messages of threat or unmet basic needs and to mobilize remedial action. It’s for this reason that the extremely congenital insensitivity to pain and anhydrosis (CIPA)—a condition where patients’ brains do not receive pain messages from sense receptors—is so dangerous. According to the National Institutes of Health, most patients with this condition do not live past age 25.

Pain is a universal, necessary engine of human experience. It is there to not only be felt by each of us but also to be noticed as a commonality, a common denominator regardless of the differences we point toward, push at, and away from each other.

Common Denominator 2: We all want to feel seen for our pain and possibilities.

Yes, you agree we all experience pain, and how about recognizing how we all want acknowledgment of what hurts and what we most want to create, achieve, and bring to bear? When our possibilities in love and work are unseen, it quickly becomes a pain. More pain needs to be seen.

No matter your life history, whether you’ve experienced trauma, loss, or the grind of work and family, you play defense against the pain with various tactics of duck and cover, blame and shame, delay and deny.

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And what is the antidote? When those close in, sometimes anyone, lean toward and into your experience in a moment with an authentic, compassionate interest in what that pain or possibility is in you. They play peekaboo with it behind whatever you’re doing or saying. The pain then delivers its message and moves away at least a bit.

Common Denominator 3: We all seek resonant impact in moments of daily life.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote,

The perception of meaning … boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.

When you pause in a moment, notice the “click” of an idea with the demands of a situation, and when that click-insight prompts action that alleviates pain or creates something that matters, this is “resonance.” Like music, a good meal, a jazz-like conversation, resonant action is something we are all drawn toward. When? At any moment, we’re open, available, and willing.

In fractions homework as a kid, I needed to pause, notice the common denominator among the fractions, and then simplify toward that common denominator. I also needed to show my work. Are we willing to do the same with one another when our “numerators” of difference divide us?

Try This: “Solve for the Common (Humanity) Denominators”

Take a current situation of conflict with someone. Solve by seeing things more deeply.

1. State the “numerators” of difference.

  • What are the points of contention? What are the gaps seemingly separating us?
  • Identify these without fixation or preference. Notice any chatter in your mind saying “no;” instead, notice what is on the surface that’s distinct, different, even if repellant, between you.

2. Get curious and get ready to drop “beneath.”

Inhale and drop into noticing your own body, your feelings. On the exhale, stretch with curiosity toward what might be mattering, painful, or possible in the other person. (Hint: This is the hardest part and takes considerable, courageous practice.)

3. Resonate with the “common denominators.”

  • Consider expressing not only what is happening (without assuming rightness and certainty) in your own experience but also asking what is true—what might be painful or possible—in the others.
  • What matters for them, not just me, in this moment?

Touch the universality of pain, the reach for possible, the wanting of resonate doing in this world, and you’re not just solving problems. You’re seeking the “we” seemingly receding from us in totality in today’s world.

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