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Belonging and Difference

Why do some differences bring people together ("opposites attract") and others drive them apart ("irreconcilable differences")? Interestingly, small differences aren't any easier to bridge than large ones. As Sigmund Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents, "it is precisely communities with adjoining territories ... who are engaged in constant feuds." He called this phenomenon the "narcissism of minor differences."

For an illustration of this phenomenon by Monty Python, see below.

It seems to me that what holds people together or pushes them apart depends not on how big the difference is between them but on how they position themselves in relation to it, and to each other. Phrases like "opposed views," "the other side" or "contrary" are, in essence, metaphors describing orientations in physical space. We can stand opposite one another with our differences between us. Or we can stand alongside one another, with our differences in front of us or placed to one side. The choice is ours. This subtle difference of orientation is what distinguishes the wise son from the wicked son in the Passover Haggadah. Each asks a version of the same question: "What are all these rules and rituals for?" But the wicked son asks what are they "for you," choosing to stand opposite rather than alongside. As we approach Passover, the festival of freedom and choice, I wish us the courage to acknowledge our differences and the modesty to stand alongside those with whom we disagree.

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