Life’s Matters: Celebration


In my previous posts, “Social Tolerance is Unacceptable,” “Do Tolerance Laws Change Society?” and “A World of Social Acceptance,” I explored social tolerance, how laws in my previous posts can promote intolerance, and moving toward a world of acceptance and inclusion. This series of essays is about people who shun, even hate, others because of skin color, religious tradition, or political affiliation. It’s about people who want answers to the dilemmas of interracial relations. It’s about the people who believe that everything is just fine and that racism and religious persecution are dead and no further discussion is necessary. It’s about nudging a mind shift to a new perspective. In this final installment in the series, we’ll now look at not just enjoying diversity but also celebrating our shared humanity.

We’re told to celebrate our differences and to celebrate diversity, the intent being to be glad that we’re all unique individuals with a lot to offer. But this viewpoint invites separation and promotes exclusion. We can take the next step and celebrate our common humanity. This requires connection and inclusion while honoring the reality that we won’t all agree on everything. No matter where we live, no matter what continent we live on or what our neighborhood is like, we exist on Planet Earth together with other human beings.

Celebrating our common humanity is a choice born out of acceptance. It’s a natural evolvement. It paves the way for equality, the real goal. When we can celebrate each other for our shared story, we see every individual and her or his story as a piece of the larger whole. We discover that everyone “fits” and plays a role in the ever-unfolding adventure we call Life. We have so much to learn from each other, regardless of skin color, religious tradition, or political affiliation.

Celebration of our common humanity honors our differences. Differences do exist, from human to human, community to community, state to state, and country to country. The myriad ways in which we differ from each other include gender identity; opinions; cultural beliefs, mores, and practices; skin color; hair texture, regardless of race or ethnicity; eye shape and color; personal preferences; disabilities; habits; and, on the list goes. There is a point of tension, a line between celebrating diversity and celebrating our common humanity. A more inclusive approach is to honor our diversity and celebrate our common humanity. Rather than either/or, we have an equation for both/and. Honor is a powerful component of celebration. When I honor someone as an equal human being who is traveling her or his own journey of life, I see how our shared story as people permeates all of us. I expand my circle of “we” to include all of humanity.

Common humanity is the most important ingredient in any human relationship, above skin color, religious tradition, or political affiliation. So often, people overlook the humanity and zero in on the points of contention and the traits that make us different. With attention to common humanity, we are gracious and kind even when we disagree and emotions flare. We remember to “attack” the idea, not the person who presented it. We look for kernels of common ground in someone else’s story or idea. We honor and respect each other’s sacred rituals and celebrations. We let go of the fear-based beliefs we’ve been hauling around. We challenge stereotypes.

But what does “celebrate our common humanity” mean? What does it look like? Cultivating celebration of our common humanity requires a mind shift born out of recognition that all humans have the same basic needs of peace of mind and comfort (see my article, “A World of Social Acceptance,” the third article in this series.). It means treating everyone with dignity and respect. It means the rights and privileges and responsibilities of society belong to everyone. It means everyone can enjoy the freedom to self-express. It means opportunities to participate in life are available in equal measure to all. It means everyone leads a life of opportunity and choice. It means all are welcome to participate in the choosing of leaders and the drafting of laws and policies. It means we freely share resources—economic, creative, technological, opportunity, food, housing, education, time, attention, energy.

Celebrating our common humanity means we approach each other with a sense of curiosity, awe, and reverence because we see ourselves reflected in each other’s eyes and hear our stories echoed in the each other’s stories. It means seeking the precious beauty within us all. When we disagree, we dialogue, we listen to each other’s story and seek solutions that are fair and inclusive. It means compromise and adjustment while preserving the dignity of everyone involved. It puts a human face on the problems, issues, and consequences of decisions. It means seeing the pain of oppressed, marginalized, and ostracized people. When people are isolated and deprived of the opportunity to access resources, they fail to thrive and, thus, become burdens on society rather than contributors to society. It makes no sense to deprive people of opportunity, then punish them for being poor, unemployed, underemployed, or uneducated. Society suffers. Everyone suffers.

What does “celebrate our common humanity” not mean? Celebration does not mean a constant state of jubilation. It means recognizing the dignity of all people regardless of skin color, religious tradition, or political affiliation even when we painfully disagree with their beliefs or lifestyle. It does not mean overlooking or condoning behaviors that bring harm to others—it does mean a fair and equitable criminal justice system. It does not mean we put up with someone for the sake of civility—that’s tolerance. Celebrating our common humanity does not mean we always agree with other people, but we all have a right to be heard and listened to. It does not mean we will like or love each other in the same way. We may love someone as a human being and not want a friendship or an intimate relationship with that person.

We cultivate celebration the same way we cultivated acceptance—dialogue, sometimes with only one person. We talk to each other, and we tell our friends and family members what we’ve learned. We reach out to other people and listen to their stories. We seek out the commonalities of people different from us. Learning to celebrate common humanity is often uncomfortable or even dangerous and can be fraught with mistakes and misinterpretations. Our words and questions may not be well-received. Some people will go to great lengths to protect outmoded and oppressive beliefs. Perseverance, persistence, and tenacity are the keys to personal transformation. Repeated reaching out results in more satisfying relations. Confidence comes with practice. Ask a neighbor, coworker, or cashier to help you learn how to pronounce her or his name. I have friends who enjoy trying restaurants of various ethnicities. Compliment someone on their clothing or hairstyle. Be genuine; be authentic when approaching people, as they can sense when a compliment is insincere, forced, or condescending.

I was in a waiting room and noticed the colorful socks of the man sitting across from me, so I complimented him, and we engaged in conversation. Several others in the room got out of their chairs and gave him kudos on his sock selection, which, he told us, his girlfriend urged him to buy. He raised his pant legs to his knees to give us the full effect. One woman took a picture to send to her boyfriend. By the time it was my turn for my appointment, we had filled the waiting room with laughter.

I complimented a woman on her breathtaking pashmina scarf, and she gave me the link to the online store where she purchased it.

In these simple conversations, we celebrated what it means to be human. We found common ground and became a part of each other’s stories.

I’ve talked a lot about everyone’s right to be heard, to speak their truth, to self-express. That means that people filled with hatred—racists, bigots, etc.—have a right to spew venom whenever they choose and to be heard and treated with respect. But, that doesn’t mean I must allow someone to abuse me. I have the freedom to decide what I will and will not listen to and to draw boundaries. Treating someone with respect does not mean I allow her or him to denigrate me, unchecked and unchallenged. Healthy expression of emotions, even thoughts of harming others, is human. However, acting on those emotions and thoughts violates the laws and tenets of civilized society. Celebrating common humanity promotes harmony. It requires that I listen to the pain of racists and bigots while exercising my own right to tell my story. It can’t be a one-way relationship. Hate-filled people truly believe in their story. If I want them to compromise, I must do so as well. No one has the right to be mean, cruel, oppressive, or hurtful. The Constitution guarantees the right of free speech; it doesn’t guarantee the right to hurt or harm others with that free speech with no consequences.

Reaching out takes courage, especially if doing so is new to us, or we have met with disappointing results in the past. It means taking risks that we won’t be popular with our peers. It means taking the risk that our peers might admire us and want to emulate us. We can’t let complacency prevent us from moving forward just because we think the effects of oppression and discrimination don’t affect us. Lives are at stake. Communities are at stake. The United States of America is at stake. The world is at stake. No one is immune.

These steps are not easy to take. They require a strong desire for change for the better. They require courage. They require people to slow down and pay attention to other people. None of us is on this planet alone. We all are subject to the influences of other people. We need to see each other through a lens of awe and fascination. We need to see each other as precious. We need to ask what we can learn from people who are different from us. Answers to our most probing questions and toughest dilemmas often come from unexpected sources.

Celebrating our common humanity is a courageous and joyous endeavor although not always an easy or comfortable one. We learn to laugh and to cry with others. We recognize ourselves in the stories of others. We develop interdependent relationships that serve everyone well. We shed the persona of “them versus us.” We delight in each other. Allowance into someone else’s world is an honor and a privilege. When someone approaches us and encourages us to tell our story, we feel empowered. Our world gets bigger when we share it with others.

We all touch each other’s lives and influence each other in myriad ways. We can learn to approach each other with a sense of fascination and awe and reverence. We can learn to honor differences and celebrate commonalities through focused, deliberate attention to each other. We reach out to create ripples, the foundations of groundswells. Transformation can happen no matter where we are on the intolerance-tolerance-acceptance-celebration continuum. We all have the potential to move toward a world of acceptance and celebration.

Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. She is experienced in human resources employee services administration, chemical dependency counseling, and magazine publishing editorial assistant. The opinions expressed here are her own. 

This is the fourth and final column of Billie’s series. The others are:

Part One: “Social Tolerance is Unacceptable,”

Part Two: “Do Tolerance Laws Change Society?

Part Three: “A World of Social Acceptance