On Tolerating Our Differences

I still remember the first time that I recall feeling different.

My family had relocated from a White Anglo- Saxon suburb in Geelong to an inner city suburb populated by Greek/Italian migrants, in Adelaide. Religious Instruction, was a weekly curriculum feature and children were grouped according to the faith declared by our parents.  I was a painfully shy girl, and when it was time to go to our separate classes, I sat quietly at my back-row desk, to afraid to ask the teacher for help. The adult who walked into the classroom was completely foreign to my experience. A large bearded man, in a black robe, strange looking hat, and a large cross hanging around his neck. When he started chanting in an unfamiliar language, I was frightened of what I didn't understand and terrified that he would discover  he had  an ‘alien' in the room. To my embarrassment, the priest became aware of my presence as I tried to mimic the other students doing their  prayer ritual. I was swiftly evicted from the classroom and taken to the more familiar group of white Anglo Saxon Christian  children!

Being different was an embarrassing and ultimately shaming experience.

My presence was not welcomed nor tolerated. The message I received that day was that I did not fit in, I did not belong. I learnt that being different was lonely, uncomfortable, unsafe and to be avoided at all costs.

It is this fear of being different and the need for acceptance and belonging, that encourages us to forge our identity according to the group identity – its' beliefs, rules, dress code, language and behaviour.

Fear of difference breeds misunderstanding, intolerance and hate. It sets people against one another, isolating us by virtue of the barriers we build to keep the people who are different to me, out. Families, workplaces, communities, and nations are fractured and destroyed by fear and our inability to tolerate what is different to our experience.

One of my greatest challenges has been to overcome my fear and learn to tolerate difference. I have had to find the courage to let go of the fear of what I don't understand or tolerate and be curious and accepting of people who are different to me, without feeling threatened by them  or feeling the need to challenge or change them. Being respectful and kind to others, learning to welcome difference and allow it to enrich our lives is a quality that matures us as individuals and builds a stronger, more resilient community.

I have learnt that in spite of the things that make us different – our race, culture, beliefs, lifestyle – that as human beings we are all connected. We all want to give and receive love, experience joy and sadness and have the same basic needs to sustain life. As different as we all are, we are not so different.

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