By Mary Reitano
Families are made up of individuals with different personalities, skills and dreams. But they can be together, be different, and still be harmonious. Musician John Denver wrote: “I believe that we are here for each other, not against each other. Everything comes from an understanding that you are a gift in my life–whoever you are, whatever our differences.” Wise parents recognize variations in children and adjust to their unique abilities, personalities and weaknesses. Virginia Satir, family therapist, wrote that one key to a nurturing family is appreciation of individual differences, which enhances feelings of self-worth.
Like a family, a symphony orchestra is an example of the power of many playing together—violins, trumpets, flutes, drums. All are different, but can create beautiful music with unity and harmony. The root word “sym” means together; and the root word “phon” means sound. So, symphony means sound together, not sound the same.
In real life, personal differences can be a source of fascination or frustration. During vacations we often interact closely with extended family for extended periods, some of whom see the world differently than we do. To complicate matters, most people are convinced their own views are correct–sometimes seeing them as “the norm” for others. Believing in the validity of our perceptions and experiences is healthy to a point. But empathy—seeing the world through the eyes of others—is equally important for psychological and relational health. “Accurate empathy” is attained by carefully listening to others, and, if needed, clarifying what they think and feel to achieve genuine understanding.
Healthy curiosity and exploration of individual differences can build also bridges. Why does Grandpa Joe think the way he does? What is driving my niece Susie’s dream? How is my brother Tom different than me, even though we grew up in the same house? What shaped my mother’s preferences? Taking personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs and discussing them with others can also provide insight and even be fun! You may discover one person is introverted, but another is extroverted, and see how that effects family social events. If we do not understand, acceptance reduces tension. And agreeing to disagree can keep the peace.
Actor Michael J. Fox said of his 27-year marriage to Tracy Pollan, “The key to our marriage is the capacity to give each other a break. And to realize that it’s not how our similarities work together; it’s how our differences work together.” The late Ruth Bell Graham said of her marriage to evangelist Billy Graham: “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” She admitted they had some spirited discussions. Billy humorously added “I think that there is some merit to a description I once read of a married couple as ‘happily incompatible.’” Of course, these principles do not only apply to marriage. Although challenging, differences do not have to divide people; they can be laughed about, even celebrated! The French said it well—long live the difference–“Vive la difference!”
Mary Reitano is a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate practicing in Lake Lure, NC. Her focus is positive psychology with a holistic approach addressing emotional, relational mental, physical and spiritual health. She can be reached at 704-858-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.