I believe that the similarities we share as humans are far more numerous and more important than our differences. I first found a label for this belief while studying clinical psychology in graduate school. My professor called it a nomothetic view of people, or the premise that there are overarching, universal laws governing people. The discipline of psychology must presuppose a nomothetic view of humans. Otherwise there would be no laws of behavior, just the observation of random, unpredictable actions of individuals. Over the years my work with patients in psychotherapy has taught me that I can connect most deeply with them when I am most aware of our commonalities.
There are times when it’s tempting to forget how much I share with my fellow humans. When people behave in bizarre or self-damaging ways it’s a comfort for me to believe that I am essentially different from them and that I could never fall victim to the same forces. When someone has been hurtful or cruel to me I protect myself with the idea that he is separate and very distant from me. And when I see reports of violent atrocities on the news I find safety in the knowledge that there are oceans of distance and difference between those dark others and myself.
I met someone years ago who finally crystallized and confirmed my belief that we are all more alike than different. I was visiting a state hospital for the mentally ill to collect data for a study of schizophrenia. I stepped into a tightly packed elevator and quickly surmised that I was the only non-patient. I felt the difference self-consciously and acutely. One of the passengers addressed me directly saying, “Doc, I told my therapist that I’m sure that I’m a dog. See, I have paws instead of feet, I wag my tail, and I like to eat food out of a bowl on the ground.” As I listened I quickly diagnosed him as schizophrenic with bizarre delusions. I put on a compassionate demeanor and quietly nodded to him. He continued, “So my therapist asked me, ‘How long have you believed that you’re a dog?’ and I told her, ever since I was a puppy.” Everyone in the elevator waited in perfect stillness for my response. I suddenly realized that the man was not manifesting psychotic symptoms, but instead, simply telling me a joke. I turned to him with a broad smile and said, “You got me.” Everyone in the elevator burst out laughing together. We were all riding together, sharing a joke and a wordless understanding of the larger and much funnier joke that had been played on me. We had all shared a moment of profound connection in the space of an elevator ride.
I am grateful to that man on the elevator for clearly showing me how much I share with him and with you and that this far outweighs all of the differences we have between us.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.