As a young person growing up in rural Southwest Virginia, I was a bit more sheltered than those who spent their childhoods in urban environments. I had wonderful experiences, grew up with many good people, and honestly, I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. That being said, once I got into the “real” world, I encountered a number of experiences I initially considered unusual, or even abnormal.
For instance, my wife grew up on Long Island. The first time I traveled to New York, I found the people to be very…well…blunt. They seemed to say whatever came to mind. In the genteel south, we preferred to show face-to-face kindness and share our honesty behind people’s backs. It seemed like the thoughtful thing to do…bless their hearts.
Another sheltered experience I had related to the safety of tuna salad. In the 1970’s, my family was a bit suspicious of seafood since we lived so far from the ocean. So, whenever we went out to lunch, my mother would never order a tuna salad sandwich because, she said, “We don’t know how old it is.” Oh, it was fine to eat it at home where the tuna could go from tin can to fridge in a matter of seconds. But restaurant tuna salad was…well…fishy.
In hindsight, I have come to appreciate both the directness of my brothers and sisters from the north as well as the deliciousness of tuna salad sandwiches. These experiences are now familiar to me and thus, they seem perfectly normal.
Over the past few years, our world has become more divided. Many people are intolerant of ideas that are different from their own and are equally intolerant of the people who express them. I suspect we see our own people and our own views as “normal” while anything else is considered abnormal. But perhaps normalcy is the wrong way to look at our differences. Maybe we should think in terms of unfamiliarity instead.
When our son turned seven, he was the only white American at his birthday party. His closest friends had a variety of darker skin colors and most had parents who were born in other countries. While this was normal for the diverse communities in the Washington DC suburbs, it was unusual for me. I did not see a lot of differences while growing up in Southwest Virginia. My exposure to diversity was limited to black, white, Baptist, and Methodist. And even though we Methodists saw things quite differently than the Baptists, we were nice to their faces. Just saying.
One of my son’s friends was born in the U.S. but his parents were born in Egypt. Every time I went to pick him up from their house, his friend’s mother loaded up a plate of food for me and implored me to take more. I was not accustomed to this kind of mid-afternoon welcome meal. But when I learned that this was part of their culture, it was no longer unfamiliar—and I ate without hesitation. That is, unless she offered tuna salad.
Finding myself in unusual circumstances has continued throughout my life. I once visited a Rotary Club in The Netherlands where no one spoke English. Yet their welcoming handshakes and warm smiles spoke to our similarities rather than our differences. Several years ago, I had the privilege of doing a presentation at the White House. I was unfamiliar with the protocols for addressing high ranking officials so I simply asked for guidance from my host. Once I learned a few rules and understood that I would not be thrown out for making a mistake, I became more comfortable. And more recently, I visited a community that was heavily populated by those who follow Orthodox Judaism. After wondering out loud about the history of the town, I was given an overview of how the community evolved. It was not only fascinating but I found the differences in our backgrounds much less unusual.
Due to my innate curiosity, I seek to make the unfamiliar more familiar. I believe there is a humanity that emerges when we try to understand another person’s experiences. This can lead to greater tolerance of both ideas and people—even though we might not share the same beliefs or perspectives.
Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I am accepting of every person or situation that I encounter. There are a few things that still seem abnormal to me. Like drinking buttermilk, preferring cats over dogs, and liking The Princess Diaries 2. But I’m willing to entertain the idea that I may just be unfamiliar with the reasoning behind the attraction to these things. By the way, if you are a buttermilk-drinking cat owner who loves The Princess Diaries 2, I offer my sincerest apologies for hitting the trifecta with this particular example.
I think we live at a time when we need to see our differences not so much as abnormal but rather just unfamiliar. In doing so, perhaps we can become more understanding of the things that baffle us and ultimately see many more similarities than differences. I believe that the less unfamiliar the world looks, the more normal everything might seem.