On otherness and sameness, and the degrees of dialogue.

This was another one of those thoughts that are too obvious, too simple to be formulated without prompting. It was born of a conversation with my best friend about how, even though we are so different, we love each other nonetheless. And as we talked, my friend seemed to suggest that some people are able to do this—accept difference—while others are not. And I disagreed, and I thought about dialogue.


This was my thought: We all accept difference. Every human person is connected to a network of others, whom we love, work and play with, care for, live near, depend on, teach, learn from, do business with, encounter randomly, heal or are healed by, serve and are served by. I could go on. We are social animals, and the trick is, not one of us is the same as another. Every connection we have is a connection across difference.

I have mentioned before that I am writing a book about Leonard Swidler, one of the original and most prominent voices in interreligious dialogue on the world stage. It is likely to come out next year. Maybe. This inescapable network of connections I am talking about, Leonard Swidler calls it a feature of the “dialogical nature of reality.”

It’s a kind of fascinating, dual aspect of human experience, I think: we crave being understood, we crave a bit of sameness from other people, so we try to formulate ourselves and share those words, and we look for similar words out there in the world and hope they express similar experiences, similar selves. To those selves we are drawn. At the same time, we are entirely aware that real sameness does not exist, and therefore, neither does real understanding. We are unique. We each are different from every single body in the universe. No one can possibly know or even quite imagine what it’s like to be me, and why I am the way I am, and what and who I am. And I don’t know you, not really. Because you do things and like things and think things that, when I imagine doing, I shudder and wonder, How is it possible to live like that?

I suppose, this uniqueness makes us all a little bit alone, but it also makes us search constantly for recognition of sameness one bit at a time: this bit in this person, that bit in that. It makes us open to otherness, because we have to accept otherness to find sameness. They are a package deal.

My best friend and I have a lot in common: a taste in food, a liking for romantic comedies and Doctor Who, largely a taste in people. A principle of care and empathy as the highest good. Long, plush hugs. We are also explosively unlike: He thinks my music is depressing, and I think his TV shows are mind-numbing. To me, his imprecision is exasperating, and he finds my insistence on accuracy amusing and calls it “exactitude.” I cannot imagine living without bookshelves in my room, and he cannot imagine a faith that’s not a choice.

When we come together, my friend and I rest securely in the foundation of our sameness, which allows us to engage our difference with humor and respect: to accept what we can’t fathom, to argue about everything else — sometimes to enlighten, sometimes to persuade, most of the time, simply to be our own better selves in the light of the other — and that, what we do, is dialogue. And it happens between all people who encounter each other without enmity. The rest is a matter of degree.

Strange bedfellows

Dialogue is getting to know. It is learning and teaching. Interestingly, Swidler’s first rule of dialogue (the first “commandment” of his Dialogue Decalogue) is that we must be open to learning first and teaching second—but you know, that too is a matter of degree, because we may not always know what’s first and what’s second and how much, and both parties cannot learn first, so really, we learn and teach at the same time.

We dialogue with our hands when, with strangers or colleagues, in volunteer groups or with neighbors, for a cause or for paycheck, resolving our differences and drawing on similarities, getting to know each other in the process, we do work together.

We dialogue with our heads when, with our friends, opponents, teachers, and students, in political debate or in a church committee, over a dining room table or over a negotiating table, we hammer out our differences and formulate similarities for the sake of persuasion.

And when we come together, mind-boggling and unfathomable yet all overwhelmingly human, and love each other—when we care for each other in pain, when we pray together or sing, when we look around and gasp in unison at the beauty of things that are here—we dialogue with our hearts.

Dialogue is sharing and getting to know, the confluence of otherness and sameness, from which identity grows, and we have no choice but to do it all the time. We are creatures in dialogue, and whether or not we call our living “dialogical,” how well we do it is only a matter of degree. A quantitative difference, not qualitative. No one can survive outside of this network of connections—heart-felt, hand-made, mind-boggling. Inescapable.

I think, Swidler calls it the “cosmic dance of dialogue.”


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