Variations on a Theme

No two people are exactly the same.

This is true on several levels. Only identical twins share DNA, but DNA’s just a starting point. Life and choices can change us, randomly and not so randomly, and neuroscience is beginning to wonder just how much we can rewire our own brains.

No two lives are alike. So much can change because of how and where a person’s born, who they meet, what they see and don’t see. My life is very different from citizens of other countries, other states, and even other neighborhoods. My life is different from my ancestors, and those who come after me will see and do things I can’t imagine. Culture evolves by year and by day, and I read books written not so long ago that are missing the context they were meant for. Sometimes it feels like I’m reading half a conversation, because the author is answering statements that have fallen out of use.

There are things that are the same. We’re all human. There are principles and base assumptions that can be trusted, upon which all our lives turn. There are certain things that will always cause trauma. There are certain things that will always bring joy. There are certain things we all need, besides food and water and shelter. There are certain patterns we will all follow. Thing is, we all follow them differently.

That’s not a contradiction in terms. Two instruments in an orchestra performing the same symphony may be doing two different things. A thousand different colors work together to make a single image. If you look at a fractal, you’ll see that every square millimeter of it is different, even though every square millimeter of it is based on the same equation.

So much depends on where we stand, what we’ve seen, and what we’ve done. So much depends on how we’re made. God is a God of endless diversity, and he didn’t make us all the same. Neither does he intend for us all to be the same. To be different is not wrong in and of itself. But we, small-minded humans that we are, tend towards generalities, conformity, and sameness. It’s easier. It’s simpler. It does us no favors.

One of the things I learned about in Teacher Education was Gardner’s Intelligences. It’s a theory about how there is more than one way to be intelligent (Gardner listed eight different ways). The theory isn’t perfect, but he was onto something. Any given person will “get” certain things faster than others, and it’s different for everyone. Some years back my younger nephew, when he was new to walking, lost a toy under a coffee table. He eyed the coffee table for a moment before ducking down and grabbing his toy, and then he backed out and stood up, and in all that, didn’t once hit his head. A lot of people judge intelligence by how early a child talks. My nephew was late talking, but he had the whole spatial relationship thing down.

Each of us is good at something different. Each of us has different weaknesses. What’s easy for me isn’t necessarily easy for someone else. What’s hard for me isn’t necessarily hard for someone else. This is true physically, mentally, and morally.

Jesus once summed up the whole of God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (taken from Matthew 22:37-39, ESV) The Westminster Shorter Catechism does a lovely job summing up the purpose of humankind: “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” These are massively broad statements. They have to be. Get any more specific, and complications are everywhere, because this looks different for everyone.

My ancestors’ favorite virtue was humility. Christians are called to be humble, and Jesus praised the meek in his beatitudes. So the Mennonites took it upon themselves to define their whole lifestyle by humility. This worked out the way most things do: they defined “humility” by what they thought it looked like. But appearances are deceiving, and soon enough, acting humble was something people took pride in. For some, living simply and dressing plainly is humiliating. For others, living loudly and dressing beautifully is something to stoop to. Humility is seeing oneself neither too high nor too low, but right where we ought to be. It’s a pattern to follow. It looks different on everyone.

We’re not all called the same, either. We’re not all meant for the same things. We tend to rank jobs, and the ranks are different for each little subculture. To some people, success is a seven-figure salary in a high-up corporate job. To some people, success is having a whole exhibition in a prestigious gallery. To some people, success is early retirement. To some people, success is doing volunteer work full-time. There are a hundred little successes too: we think we’ll be a “better person” if we’re good in such-and-such an area, or that our lives are incomplete without meeting such-and-such a goal.

Who says?

Paul described the whole of Christian brotherhood as a body, that it has many parts, each with their own function. All societies work that way. There have to be inventors and makers and fixers and maintainers. Someone has to crunch the numbers, someone has to make the calls, and someone has to clean up afterward. None of these is more important than the others – none. They all require something different. Good thing we’re all made different.

For starters, being a leader isn’t necessarily better than being a follower. We need to live in communities and communities need leaders. The reason communities need leaders is so that other people are free to do what they do best: design, make, fix, organize, analyze, synthesize, or tidy up. This works out to mean things that sound a little weird: College isn’t for everyone, but it is for some people. Marriage isn’t for everyone, but it is for some people. For some people, their place really is in a beautiful suburban house. For some people, their place really is a tiny rental in the inner city. There are people who would be happy and fulfilled leading major corporations. There are people who would be happy and fulfilled fixing plumbing all day, or landscaping, or adding up reams of numbers, or making lattes, or drawing blood. Furthermore, what we’re called to do can change, depending on what we have and what we need. If he is truly God, then he knows what each of us needs, where each of us would be happiest and do best, and if he is truly God, that’s where he wants to take us. It just might not look how we’re expecting. It also might not look like we’re afraid it’ll be.

I’m the kind of person who’s always working at my faults. I see something about me that’s weak, so I decide to get better at it. I spend a lot of work doing that. Which sounds all nice and worthy, except I end up dismissing my talents, ignoring my strengths, and wasting a lot of time and effort when I could be doing something I enjoy, that I could actually excel in. I believe that God has called me to write. “That can’t be right,” says my brain. “Writing’s easy! There are people who live in huts and dig wells for villages that don’t have wells, or live day-in and day-out as foster-parents to troubled children, or mentor abused women, or translate the Bible into new languages – I mean, all I do is sit a my laptop and type! I’m not feeding the homeless or visiting those in jail – I’ve got this cushy little townhouse, I get to sit in my favorite chair with a big humongous mug of hot, sweet tea – this is my calling? I don’t know whether that’s totally awesome or utterly lame. Are you sure it shouldn’t at least be something that requires a vaccine or three?”

(Yes, I know, I should be writing more. I think I know what Paul meant about not doing what we want to do.)

We have such tiny definitions for such huge words. Serving God and glorifying him runs out beyond anything we can imagine, any boundaries we try to set. Walking with God can take us on paths we never knew were there, paths other people may not understand. Being humble, or patient, or kind, or gentle, or self-controlled looks different on everyone. We need different things. We can give different things. It’s part of God’s design. Roses bloom in a thousand colors and even on the same bush, no two are quite alike.

“What’s right for you is different from what’s right for me.” Taken one way, that’s heresy. Taken another, it’s true. The principle is simple. It’s universal and right, and to deviate is wrong. But if the way is narrow, where it goes and how it looks is way outside our little worlds, brighter and broader than anything we can imagine. Forget the trappings and find the principle. If you’re following God, neither you nor anyone else can know where you might end up. But that’s where we ought to go.