Celui qui diffère de moi, loin de me léser, m’enrichit. (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
Far from harming me, whoever differs from me, enriches me.
The end of the year – a time to reflect and to take stock: to give thanks for things which have gone well; and to draw lines, if possible, under things which have been more difficult. Coming to the end of 2018, I have a lot of things for which I am thankful; but in this post, I particularly want to recognise the value of having others around us who are different from us, and so enrich us.
Each of us is wonderfully (and mercifully!) unique. A world of Alex Muirs would literally fall apart, not least because of my woeful practical skills. From this perspective, everyone is different from us. When I think about those who are closest to me, I find that they fall into – and, in some cases, straddle – two very broad categories:
– those who are quite like me in personality and outlook;
– those who are very different from me in personality and outlook.
Both are great gifts, but here I want to focus on the latter category because I am mindful that such people often complement something I lack, or helpfully reorient my perspective. I recognise that some people are so different from us that it is difficult to find common ground or things to talk about. Another French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre even went as far as saying “hell is other people” (l’enfer, c’est les autres). Apparently the average person meets 80,000 people in their lifetime, so naturally, some people will pass us by; yet, very often, once we have made the effort to interact with someone different from us, we see that they have something to offer us.
It is true that we might not always agree with others. This is often healthy. Although as someone who hates conflict, I find this challenging. Conflict and well-mannered debate (involving actual listening to the other!) can be fruitful, however, and help find ways forward with worldly and personal issues.
I can remember one specific weekend in 2018 where I spent time with people who were both very similar to me and very different from me. That weekend, I fell in love again with one of Oasis’ most-underrated songs: Acquiesce. The song appears to be about learning to recognise and value others. Its chorus goes: “Because we need each other, we believe in one another, I know we’re going to uncover, what’s sleeping in our souls”. In other words, other people are valuable and necessary in shaping who we are, and helping us work out, maybe even awaken, what is in our minds: all manner of thoughts, ideas and dreams.
I currently have the privilege of spending a lot of time reading and listening to a significant other: the apostle Paul. My estimation of Paul as a wise and passionate thinker has increased in recent months. I still believe, however, that his main goal in his letters was to call people from diverse backgrounds to unity in Christ. He employed the language and concepts of his time, but Paul’s mind remained fully fixed on Christ.
This is particularly apparent in one of his letters to the Philippians. He writes:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
(Philippians 2:1-2, NIVUK)
When we read this, we might think that Paul is saying that anyone who follows Christ signs up to Christian cloning. The Greek literally says: “so that you might think the same thing … thinking about the one thing”. Yet, such a reading misses the mark. Elsewhere, Paul talks about the believers forming a collective body with their different gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-31; cf. Romans 12:3-8). Instead, Paul is encouraging believers, in spite of their differences, to be united around Christ, through the help of the Spirit. I have heard it said that “the Spirit is the great leveller” enabling all to be welcome and valued – even those who appear most different from us.
So, at the end of 2018, I am so thankful for those who are different from me: who enrich me and help to make my joy complete; who cause me to look beyond myself towards others, and in many cases, towards a God who seeks intimate fellowship with each of us individually and his entire creation collectively – towards a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
May we know God and be enriched by such a God in 2019.