One of my favorite stories comes out of a reception honoring a couple for 50 years of marriage. This couple was asked the inevitable question: “What’s your secret to making your relationship work all these years?” Expecting a simple answer, like love, or being willing to forgive, the attendees received something rather more profound. The elderly wife responded, “We learned early on to harmonize.”
Seeing the quizzical looks on people’s faces, she continued, “Well, let me tell you about us. I like country music; he hates it. I don’t like classical music much; he loves it. I like spicy food; that makes him sick. He has a terrible sweet tooth; I hate desserts. I’m a night person; he’s a morning person; I drink tea, he drinks coffee. He’s a football fan; I love baseball. I dance, he doesn’t. We have a lot of differences between us, you see, but we learned something early on in our marriage that made all the difference. We learned that you don’t get harmony if you both sing the same note.“
I don’t know if that story is true, but I do recognize truth in that story — the truth about meaningful relationships. They harmonize. They learn to approach differences with a sense of their potential combination to produce a greater, more substantial whole. Whether it be friendship, or marriage, or family, or congregation, or community, or any other way that humans connect together in the bonds of fruitful interaction, an essential element is the constructive interaction of differences. Indeed, it is impossible to have a meaningful, substantial relationship without such harmonization, which looks like respect, understanding, tolerance and openness — and sounds like the melody of a healthy connection with another.
We seem to have drifted away from this understanding in our world today. Especially on the national level, but by no means limited to that sphere, we have built up a toxic level of competition for power, influence, wealth, status and virtue; many of our systems promote inharmonious relationships that are designed to produce winners and losers, using the differences between us as weapons to wage war against each other. It seems that harmony is no longer a primary goal; dominance is. Dominance of one political party over another. Dominance of the rich over the poor. Dominance of one gender over another. Dominance of one faith over another.
I believe there is a better way, which begins when we stop trying to dominate and start seeking to harmonize. It is a main tenet of my Christian faith — as it is for many faith systems, Christian or otherwise — that each and every person has innate value; we say it in terms of each person having “sacred worth.” Just as they are. In their uniqueness and individuality. Especially, in the differences from our own ways of thinking, believing and living that they may represent. There may be indeed threats in some of these differences, and it is important to discern what leads to destruction of this basic understanding of sacred worth — but I have found that many of the differences we fear are not existential threats to our reality so much as opportunities to broaden our worldview, explore that reality, and seek common ground that persists in spite of our variety.
This defines hope for me — that we strive to understand our differences as assets more than threats, that we seek a respect for others that allows our own perspectives to be either re-affirmed without condemnation of the differences around us — or to be positively transformed by the effect of another.