Tuesday, January 22, 2013

You say tomato, I say.......orange. And, that is a-okay.

Mini-me asked me why we referred to people with brown skin as “black” – why we had to say that at all. “After all,” she said “the only difference is their skin color. It’s like me having red hair and my friend having blond. They are just people.”  I started to respond with some detailed explanation about society and stopped. Because she was right. My heart swelled with parental pride. Sometimes – once in a great while – parents see some proof that they are doing something right.

This isn’t the only time mini-me hasn’t seen differences. We have a neighbor with Down’s syndrome. She didn’t really think he was any different than any other five-year old. Another neighbor has a physical disability that affects the way she walks – to my daughter, she is just her friend’s mom and when someone asked her about this person, she shrugged and said, “I guess she hurt herself.”  It just didn’t come into play.

But, what happens when those differences are not physical – what happens when people believe differently than we do or have a really annoying habit – can we still look beyond that difference and be friends? Can we look beyond that and still be respectful and decent?  Let me be clear, it’s not like I’m the most politically correct person on the planet, I have strong opinions, can be bossy. I likely have habits that annoy the shit out of my friends.  Some of my friends are wildly different than I am – they believe something different – be it religious or political.  And yes, some of those things that make me crazy.

Take Neiman – one of my nearest and dearest.  I’ve said this before - she will always tell me to do what I think is best, or what makes me happy or just nods. I have to push her for her real opinion and still, she gives it so gently, so quietly that sometimes I’m not sure.  This annoys me every.single.time.  I need feedback, opinion and sometimes – direction. We sit on different sides of the political fence (and have really amazing conversations on the topic), she is so much more proper, always perfectly dressed with her hair just so and always takes the high road.  Those that know me well recognize how different that is from me and yet my friendship with Neiman is 20+ years strong with nary a fight.

Geek is so logical, so rational and so practical. She researches everything – be it a car, a tv or book – now imagine when it’s something really big like school or a medical issue. It can be annoying when I want to follow my usual knee-jerk reaction but on the flip side, she talks me off ledges, helps me figure things out in a solid and methodical way and has even balanced my checkbook.  Brenda Starr and I worship very differently.  Her family is quiet, subdued and proper. Mine, is well – not.  But, we’ve been friends forever and while her parents could rightly blame me for getting her drunk, encouraging her to go to bars when we shouldn’t and other behaviors inappropriate for teenage girls – I still get an annual holiday card from them and they were nothing but wildly happy and supportive when I walked the path to single motherhood.

Parenting can often pull you apart or push you together as friends.  My neighborhood posse and I have very different approaches to parenting. I am by far, the strictest of the group.  I have no doubt that our differences frustrate one another – but we just shrug our shoulders. They have taught me that these differences aren’t a make or break deal. The kids follow the rule of the house they are in – which are more similar than different – and we all know the little sticking points that have to be followed (more or less) regardless of where they are. Da Bomb and have become like a small gang at the barn and it was recently noted by someone that we’re so different and they are surprised we’re such good friends. Really? Neither our marital status nor our bank accounts define us – especially since we often think with one brain.

But more often than not, I’m seeing differences treated as deficits – as negatives so strong that each difference has grown into an either/or mentality.  I see blatant disrespect, hostility and downright rudeness. The kind of behavior or talk that makes me wonder who these people really are and if they are still my friends if I disagree or agree. It is ugly, it may be inaccurate (on both sides people – don’t get your knickers in a twist) and mean.  How can we teach our children to appreciate what is different and to be respectful of differences, respectful of people with whom we disagree when we, as the adults, can’t do that?  If our children don’t like what their teacher, coach or friend is saying, should they be allowed to call them names, malign their character, spread half-truths or treat them disrespectfully – with hateful words or actions?  After all, grownups do it all the time.

I may spend 40+ hours a week with some real asshats but I would never be anything less than respectful to my colleagues.  My daughter’s first grade teacher tested the limits of my patience but I was nothing but courteous, continuing to try and work with her appropriately I must deal with someone regularly that is less than enamored of my mere existence and hasn’t spoken to me in more years than I care to remember – all based on a life choice I made. Yet, I treat this person respectfully (and at a polite distance) because of their (limited) role in my life and though I vehemently disagree with how it’s handled, I will continue to take the high road (with Neiman’s gentle prodding) though I dread the day when mini-me notices and a talk must ensue. 

So, while I’m so proud to hear mini-me not see the differences in people I wondered where – and how – she learned that. Did she learn by how I treat my friends or by how I treat those I don’t know? Is compassion learned by watching me put an arm around a hurting friend or seeing me help a stranger? Was tolerance learned because I put up with the dreaded “Dog with a Blog” or because I patiently explain for the umpteenth time that friends like different things and that will let us learn new things? Is respect learned by telling her she must always mind her elders, her teacher or another parent – or by hearing me speak to the repairman that was late, the driver going too slow, the checker at Trader Joe's, the stranger that asked for money, the person with whom I disagree or simply by being on the receiving end of less than decent treatment and not understanding why?

This past Christmas Eve, mini-me and I sat with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew in church.  It was the first time mini-me was in church – there were lots of questions and she tried hard to sing along to words that were on the big screen. She listened patiently to the story of Christmas. Beach answered questions about the service she was so familiar with – that represented her faith and that of her family.  I answered questions about how it was different from what we believe and how we practice Judaism.  And later, as we walked on the pier (really, on our way to bar – let’s not forget who is writing this) and she heard a different church telling yet another version of the story of Christmas, she looked at me and said, “Mom, it’s the same story.”  Yes, mini-me – many stories are alike though they are told in different places, in a different language, with different words and by different people.  We all have a lot more in common than we have differences.

I believe one of the marks of a solid and true friendship is the ability to agree to disagree.  I mean, how boring would life be if all our friends were just like us? Boring and frankly, annoying. I mean, holy crap – I get annoyed at myself often enough – I don’t want to deal with a bunch of different versions of me.  I relish the differences among my friends. I’ve learned much through them - my life is fuller, richer and more diverse. I’ve learned to like new things, read different books or try something new.  I don’t always agree, I get angry or frustrated. I admire, get jealous or don’t understand. But I’m a better person for listening, for trying, for seeing a new perspective. I’m a friend because I don’t let our differences define us – but remember what we do share – what made the bond in the first place.  Our friendships sustain despite these differences – or perhaps because of them.

Imagine if that carried over to all parts of our lives.