On Christmas Eve in 1914, a remarkable event occurred in the trenches along the Western Front. Soldiers fighting the First World War ceased firing for a time, and began to sing. What made this truly remarkable was not the cease fire or the singing or even the holiday greetings that ensued, but that the soldiers singing and greeting one another were from opposing armies.
In the spirit of the holiday, thousands of German, British, French, and Belgian soldiers chose to venture across the front lines bearing gifts and goodwill instead of firearms, beginning a series of unofficial ceasefires that would later come to be known as the “Christmas Truce.” Meeting between the trenches in what was designated “No man’s land,” these men congregated and conversed, sang songs, played games, shared food and souvenirs, and even buried their dead together in a courageous conspiracy of peace amidst war, despite clear orders from their high commands against fraternizing with the enemy. Not surprisingly, in the many months to follow, having shared fellowship amidst hardship, many of these soldiers continued to defy the expectations of their commanding officers, adopting a live-and-let-live attitude, and aligning their patriotism with a greater humanity.
Yet, in the end, patriotic duty overcame goodwill amongst men. In the following four years, millions of lives would end violently on the bloody front lines of “us” and “them.” Many of the brave men who united with the better angels of their nature in an improbable truce would not survive, but thanks to their diaries, photos, and letters, as well as the recollections of the few who made it home, their story survives.
Sadly, it is a story rarely featured in our history books. Focused as historians often are on telling stories from national perspectives with clear borders, victors and villains, perhaps a story about humanity beyond borders in which everyone wins in no man’s land is easy to dismiss, but I think that this story, and others like it, are the stories that teach us what it really means to be human, not to mention what it really means to be a hero or win a war.
Wars aren’t won on battlefields, but in the field beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing that exists within our own hearts and minds. Declaring “truce” in the face of inhumanity isn’t cowardice but bravery of the highest order. No man’s land is not necessarily a wasteland between enemy lines, but the heartland of every man and woman who has the courage to fraternize with the enemy and honor our greater humanity.
To be human is to understand that our greatest enemies aren’t others, but our own persistent, pervasive notions of irreconcilable otherness. They. Them. Those people. Strangers. Foreigners. Others. These simple words so often used to define an enemy—to justify our actions, rally the troops, and sway the public against the better angels of our nature—appeal to our instinctive need to belong, to be part of something larger than ourselves. However, when our solidarity insidiously depends on the existence, dehumanization, and exclusion of an “other,” we use our differences to separate us from our greater humanity, becoming our own worst enemies at war with ourselves to the detriment of us all. The dangerous progression from difference to indifference, from other to objectification, leads us to justify perspectives and actions that deny the dignity, liberty, and life that belong to all of us.
We all have others in our lives. Indeed, the ability to distinguish self from others is a bastion of psychological health, a clear boundary between self and other preserving the capacity for healthy relationships that exist beyond enmeshment and detachment. Yet, a sense of self devoid of empathy for our fellow human beings condemns us to join the ranks of narcissists and sociopaths, personifying others for whom empathy is most difficult to muster.
Fraternizing with the enemy begins with the recognition that each and every one of us is a rightful member of our humanity—deserving our kindness, compassion, and understanding. United we stand, divided we fall is not empty rhetoric, but practical wisdom. Recognizing that emotional detachment to the suffering of others is the surest path to suffering for all, the truly heroic use this maxim not to divide and conquer, but to protect and serve the greatest integrity of our shared humanity.
Man, woman, black, white, rich, poor, feminine, masculine, young, old, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, religious, secular, fat, skinny, short, tall, happy, sad, intellectual, emotional, quiet, loud, introverted, extroverted—the rich diversity of humanity on display throughout the world understandably intrigues, disturbs, and entertains us. Our worlds are populated with heroes and hobgoblins that can curiously resemble each other, both idolized and demonized, depending on our moods and points of view. Some are perched on pedestals in the forefront of our experience while others lurk in peripheral shadowlands and forsaken netherworlds, all inhabiting the topsy-turvy territory of difference with its haphazard boundaries of “us” and “them.” Existing somewhere along the spectrum of “like us” and “not like us,” are others whose feelings we more readily affirm or neglect, whose perspectives we more readily acknowledge or ignore, and whose intentions we more readily trust or suspect.
Whatever the differences that shapes the meaning of "us" and "them," when we use our differences to affirm ourselves at the expense of others, we engage in self-affirmation based on exploitative discrimination. Yet, perceiving ourselves as better than others is about as laudable as being a shadow in the shade. As soon as there’s an “us” and a “them” without an appreciation of the “all of us” that embraces “all of them,” we are living in shadow, complicit in the ignorance, conflict, and suffering of the world. Being better than is always less than being our best for when we are at our best, we lower our defenses, and embrace our differences while standing boldly, vulnerably, and firmly on common ground.
When our differences get the best of us, we are all lesser for it. Even when we’re not at odds, it is still the differences among us that often attract our attention. We conduct trainings to educate us about our diversity. We throw parades to celebrate our diversity. We create policies and laws to regulate our diversity. Yet, diversity without unity creates adversity. Variety may be the spice of life, but spice without a harmonizing base is liable to give us heartburn and heartache. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that the same differences that bring us together can just as easily tear us apart. Focusing on our differences without appreciating what we have in common prevents us from experiencing and expressing our shared humanity.
There will always be others with whom we’d prefer not to share our lives, the distance between us so apparently vast that even if we chose to move toward one another, we could walk our whole lives without ever meeting even if we were in the same room. Sometimes, we’d rather keep our distance, insulate and isolate, cross our arms, cross the street, ignore the litter amidst the glitter, and keep our channels tuned to agreeable stations.
Setting our differences aside and venturing into no man’s land is challenging, especially when facing differences we dislike. It is often easier to promote or defend our way of seeing and being in the world than attempt to understand what we might have in common with others, especially those who may deeply offend, threaten, or harm us. Turning our backs instead of facing each other, our foolish minds and selfish hearts create unwitting and undeserving recipients for our destructive thoughts, words, and deeds. We often exhibit symptoms of an all too common gross compassion deficit disorder.
Yet, whenever we notice ourselves using our differences to divide ourselves from others, it behooves us to pause and consider what we have in common, so we can approach one another from a place of greater integrity that transcends and includes our differences. Sometimes, this is as simple as flipping the channel from one that supports our favored perspective to another that features content we despise with the intent to understand—resisting the urge to lob mental grenades. Sometimes, this involves stepping from behind the screen to participate in a face-to-face conversation. Often, this requires habitually bringing to mind and heart our shared humanity that allows us to more readily embrace each and all of us.
Growing up as I did, living all over the world, wherever I was, no matter how at home I may have felt, I was most often treated, for better and for worse, as “other.” Because of this, I was acutely aware of the differences among people, but curiously, the differences that people often emphasized—our appearances, accents, or the countries on our passports—were not those which mattered to me. I didn’t readily identify with the ethnocentric, nation-centric, religion-centric, occupation-centric labels often used to refer to people. Although I was aware of and sometimes intrigued by these differences, these aspects of who people are seemed, and still seem, somehow small to me.
Raised by parents from different nations and living in so many countries during formative years, I guess the normal tethers of identity didn’t take hold. In my world, God had many faces and home was many places. Social studies was a way of life rather than a course in school, and customs weren’t just cultural conventions, but way-stations with really long queues. Visas weren’t credit cards, but vital documents permitting me to visit all the places I called home, and the question, “Where are you from?” was without a simple answer.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I found it impossible to pledge allegiance to any one country. Where many often seemed content to confine our identities to the bounds of institutions like church and state, being identified so partially was puzzling and sometimes painful to me. Similarly, the idea of equating ourselves with our occupations, genders, ages, or skin colors, seemed hopelessly inadequate to describe the depth and breadth of identity possible for every human being.
Perpetually crossing borders, I couldn’t help but see such boundaries as artificial and arbitrary in comparison to the greater world and humanity that is every human’s birthright. One of the greatest gifts of my upbringing was learning that no matter what flags fly overhead, what languages are spoken, what currencies are exchanged, or what faiths and traditions prevail, people everywhere are people with more in common than any apparent differences. The boundaries of identity, if they are to hold anything of real value, must be those that offer the greatest integrity, and the greatest integrity transcends all personal differences, even those worth celebrating.
Although labels like “American” or “white” occasionally help us connect, labels like these are just as likely to prevent us from connecting with each other as wholly as we could. These labels, as useful as these may be, often prevent us from really knowing each other in any meaningful way. Throughout my life, I've found that the most meaningful connections with others transcend the labels—indeed, transcend the need for labels—and that's how I prefer to be known.
After all, who I am or who you are is irreducible to any words or phrases we may use to describe us in this moment. It's like trying to describe snow or ocean to someone who has never had the experience of snow or ocean. Any answer we give is hopelessly inadequate and incomplete. And not because I'm so special or you’re so special, but rather, because we all are and because this is a living question that unfolds in each moment. But since words are frequently the best we have to approximate the real, we represent ourselves with labels that can’t possibly live up to who we really are.
Labeling is our way of maintaining a conceptual dress code for every occasion because, let’s face it, very few of us run around naked and even those of us that do, rarely live in cultures that welcome this. We are inclined or expected to conceal parts of who we are, to package ourselves in terms that fit the occasion. Depending on the context, we don the predictable garb of our professional roles, academic accomplishments, and familial relations. We wrap ourselves in ethnic origins, political persuasions, and religious affiliations. We adorn ourselves with astrological signs, personality types, and birth order status.
As long as we don’t mistake the labels for genuine articles, labels can also reveal the truth of whom we are. The trick is not to get too attached to the labels we’re attaching to ourselves and each other—to see beyond the labels. My word or your word about who each of us is, is the fabric of illusions.
On any given day, I do my best to wear labels like I wear my clothes—choosing those which lend comfort, beauty, and credence to the work at present, discarding those which have no relevance, and trying on others for size as inspired. I was born with some. Some I acquired along the way. Some are gifts. Some fit better than others and some I never travel without. I once consulted to a client, a large retailer, who insisted that I only wear their brands while working with them on location—a demand I found ridiculous until I realized how ridiculous it was that I cared. If wearing a certain label, literal or otherwise, serves a greater integrity, well that’s all that really matters.
When we venture into humanity’s heartland, we understand that on some fundamental level every human being from the most selfish lout to the most selfless luminary is simply trying to have a better experience of being human. Differences of opinion about what we define as better and how we get better cause us a lot of pain and suffering, but whatever we mean by “better,” we are all living for some essential betterment of ourselves, each other, and our world. Whatever our differences, all of us—the children playing in the schoolyard, the check-out clerks at the grocery store, the politicians on the news, the activists trying to save the world, and the terrorists trying to blow it up—are trying to have a better experience of being human.
However, whoever and wherever we are in the world, we are all standing on the same ground under the same sky sharing the same planet spinning around the same sun, and facing the same choice to separate or embrace ourselves and each other. We can choose to experience our differences from an open-minded, open-hearted space of greater wholeness or contain ourselves in the close-minded, close-hearted false safety of those smaller aspects of who we are. In every situation, it’s entirely up to us to choose greatness over smallness, kindness over meanness, and sense over nonsense.
The truth is that every one of us is all of these things—small and great, mean and kind, sensible and foolish, open and closed, special and scary, deep and wide, partial and whole, and so much more—depending on what and how we choose in each and every moment. Like those soldiers on the battlefield who bravely saw beyond the labels and false notions of other—ally, enemy, us, them—instead risking their lives to meet beyond their ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, the only differences that we should choose to set us apart are those that inspire us to move beyond our small habits of identity to experience our greater humanity. The only differences that really matter—that truly make a difference—are those that teach us to be better human beings.
Tragically, the lessons of the Christmas Truce remain largely unheeded. Nations still engage in wars. Soldiers are still expected to protect the interests of their countries regardless of whether national interests serve the greater interests of humankind. An allegiance to humanity over country is still more apt to result in court-martials than commendations. Stories about “human interests” are still relegated to the margins rather than the front-page, sidelined rather than headlined to protect special interests. We all still make enemies of each other.
Yet, whatever our differences, we are all utterly, irrevocably human. Being human is a “one-size-fits-all” label that transcends and includes any other labels each of us may wear. Moreover, far from being a least common denominator that renders each of us beyond meaningful recognition, it seems to me that being human is an essential common denominator that helps us recognize what is most meaningful about ourselves and each other. Identifying with our humanity gives us the perspective we need to pay attention to what really matters. Without dismissing any of our personal specialness, understanding ourselves first and foremost as human beings contextualizes our personal specialness within a universal specialness that broadens and deepens who we are.
Every human being has the potential to join a wise, compassionate, and powerful humanity that recognizes us all as natives of this earth, one species with far more in common than any differences which we mistakenly allow to separate us. Regardless of our political, economic, religious, ethnic, or nationalistic labels, we are all first and foremost, simply and profoundly human, each one of us being who we are and doing what we love as best we can given the conditions of our existence, just like every other person on the planet. Whoever we are, whatever we do, the future of our humanity and our world depends on all of us developing the wisdom, compassion, and power to bridge our differences, deepen our connections, and dedicate ourselves to more enlightened ways of living.