We have all heard the seemingly endless variety of calls to optimism. Whether it’s the glass being half full, every cloud having a silver lining, or one of the others the truth is that choosing to see life positively does improve our life experiences. There are, however, more subtle ways of implementing a positive perspective, especially in interpersonal relationships.
When we encounter another person, we instinctively assess whether they are like us or different from us. It’s a leftover from tribal culture that was essential for survival – knowing whether someone was with us or against us was primarily a matter of determining whether they looked like us in those days. Today we have difficulty because the world and its inhabitants have become more complex.
The truth is that we have both points of similarity and agreement as well as points of difference and disagreement. Stated another way’ we have points of convergence and divergence with everyone we encounter. How will we choose which to focus on?
In tribal times the focus was survival and so assessing divergence was critically important. Old habits and tendencies developed and reinforced over thousands of years resist extinction. Learning to act in a new way will require intentional work, essential work, if we want peace in our relationships and our world. Moreover, if we automatically reject others simply because we find one or two points of divergence we may be missing out on dozens of wonderful relationships of every kind.
Imagine, for example, the possibilities if conservative and progressive Christians learned to focus on their shared view of the spiritual life as essential rather than points of doctrinal disagreement. Imagine the possibilities for peace if Jewish , Christian, and Muslim believers chose to celebrate their shared belief in the same God rather than the points of divergence between their three traditions. I am not advocating ignoring differences. I am arguing for establishing an understanding of our commonality as a way to build friendship and trust as a foundation for discussion in more sensitive areas.
These essential practices can be applied to virtually every corner of life, from the new person at work to the family that just moved in next door. Coming to view others with an eye toward our commonalities also has the advantage or the stress reduction that naturally occurs when we realize we are surrounded by friends!