If you had been born into Dick Cheney's life, would you have been Dick Cheney? Would you have started wars and shot a friend in the face? What if you had been born Martin Luther King, Jr.? Would kids be reading about you in textbooks and would we spend a day shopping in your honor? What if you had been born me? Would you be here nervously coming out of the shadows, putting a name and a face and a voice to what used to be an anonymous internet presence? Would you think it was worth it in the interest of peace?
For years I've had a theory that only captive students and patient friends have had to listen to. I call it The Theory of You and it's really very simple. I think that if I had been born you, I would be exactly who you are today. Though the theory is simple, the explanation behind it is a little complex. That is why I was honored to present my theory at TEDx - Tomball. I have added the video and a rough transcript of my 15 minute talk just below the melted orange heart.
Video: Felicity Short TEDx-Tomball
TRANSCRIPT OF TEDx - Tomball PRESENTATION
It would be silly to hate a rose for not being an oak tree. To be frustrated by its thorns and lack of shade. It is just being what it is meant to be. And, after all, it didn't choose to be a rose anymore than you chose to be who you are. Any more than any of us chose to be who we are. But from the beginning of mankind, human beings have hated, oppressed and even killed people just for being who they are. Just for having a perception of the world that somebody else thinks is wrong.
I'm not just talking about the big stuff, the stuff that makes it into our history books or onto the evening news. But in our own relationships, in our friendships and our families, in our communities and our country, we are divided. And we are divided on so many issues. Abortion, immigration, religion, gun ownership, climate change, healthcare, welfare, war and on and on and on. But it's not the fact that we are divided that concerns me.
What worries me is how we talk to the people with whom we disagree and how talk about the people with whom we disagree. I think it's perfectly natural, when you encounter someone whose perception of the world is different from your own, to wonder, "How can they think that? How can they say that? How can they do that? How can they believe that?" Those are all valid questions. I just don't think that we spend enough time actually considering the answers.
But think about it like this; before you are even old enough to tie your own shoe laces, who you are has already been determined. The lens through which you will view every experience you will ever have has already been created.
After all, you didn't choose your age or the time period in which you live but we shake our heads at kids these days and get frustrated at the elderly driver in front of us.
You didn't choose your sex, your race, or your ethnicity, but all over the world people use those things as an excuse to deny other people their rights.
You didn't choose the country or the culture in which you were raised, but so many people believe that they are entitled to certain privileges simply because of where they were born. And that other people, born elsewhere, are less deserving of those same privileges.
You didn't choose who you are attracted to. And you certainly don't get to choose who is attracted to you. And, in my own personal experience, I've found that it is pretty difficult to find a good person to spend the rest of your life with. But all over the world people agitate for laws that would put limits on all different kinds of consensual love.
You didn't choose the education you received, the schools you went to as a child, the teachers you had. But when someone receives an ineffective education that limits their possibilities, we call them lazy and ignorant.
You didn't choose the family who raised you, who taught you their version of right from wrong, who gave you good nutrition or kept you alive on Happy Meals and Twinkies. And you didn't choose the family who told you that you are wonderful, and special, and loved or stupid and ugly and hated.
You didn't choose the personality that you were born with. Nor did you choose many of the experiences that would shape that personality as you age.
You didn't choose the physical or mental health you were born with. You didn't choose the body you were born into. You didn't choose your brain. You didn't choose your DNA. You didn't even choose your own name.
And yet all of those things are you. Those things are why you are who you are. Why you see the world the way that you do. Why you have the opinions and beliefs that you have. Why you have done the things that you have done. Those things are why you are you.
Now maybe you think I'm exaggerating or being too dramatic or that just can't be right. But change just one of those things. Say you had been raised by a different family or in a different culture or say you'd been born in 1752. Would you still be exactly who you are today? Would you have done the things you have done? Would you have the same beliefs and opinions that you have now? Would you be exactly who you are today? Would you even be you?
I think that whether you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Democrat or a Republican, a yuppie or a hippie, is a direct result of your exact you unique combination of the characteristics I mentioned above. See, there has never been and will never be another human being on this planet who is exactly like you because there has never been and will never be another human being on this planet who has your exact unique combination of those characteristics.
And that brings me to a theory I have. I call it the theory of you. I think that if I had been born you, I would be you. I think that if I had been born into your life, with all of your unique combination of characteristics, I would be exactly who you are today. I would have your same opinions, beliefs, values, behaviors. I would have done everything you have done. If I had been born you, I would be you.
Sometimes, when I would talk about this with my students, some students would immediately disagree. They would say, "If you had been born me, you might have made different choices." I do think we make choices. And I do believe in freewill. Sometimes when I talk about this people think that I am saying that who we are was mapped out at conception. But that's not it at all. I think we make choices but I also think that those choices are limited by our perception. That the only options available to us are the ones that we can see.
And I think that if I had been born you, I would have made every choice you have ever made. After all, you did. Because I'm not talking about if I were you with 20/20 hindsight or you version 2.0 or even some combination of me with some combination of you. I just mean that if I had been born you, I would be you.
Usually at this point on our class discussion someone would say, "Argh! Why are we even talking about this? It's not like we can know the answer for sure." And they are right. We can't know for sure. We can't just hop on Google and find the answer. I know. I tried. I typed in the exact phrase, "if I were you would I be you," and you know how many hits I got? One. For a minute I thought I'd broken the internet because that has never happened to me before. And that one hit didn't even provide us with an answer. But it did point to why the question can be so difficult to answer.
In order to see the world from someone else's eyes, we have to completely remove ourselves from our own narrow world view. In order to step into someone else's shoes, we have to step out of our own. That's hard. Maybe even impossible. It's like that question, "Does a fish know that it is wet?" I think a fish has absolutely no idea that it is wet until that fatal moment when it no longer is.
But I also think that we are smarter than fish. That not only can we try to see the world from someone else's perspective, but we must. We must engage in experiments of empathy if we have any hope of maintaining peace in our relationships and creating peace in the world.
And I have an idea. Something that we could do. Something that might make us more willing to see the world from someone else's eyes. I think that if we consider the source of our individuality, the cause of our uniqueness, we might be more willing to appreciate the uniqueness of the people that we share this planet with.
So I think there are three possible causes for our individuality. Some people may believe that we are created by a spiritual being, a higher power, a god. That this higher powered created each of us to be unique, special, complex individuals for some purpose or some plan. Others may believe that we are a product of fate. That I am who I am and you are who you are because the universe, the stars, the energy of our souls created each of us to be unique individuals. And third, other people may think that it is all just random. That we are all just a bunch of random atoms smashing into other random atoms in a big ole giant sea of randomness.
I don't pretend to know which it is but I do know this. Whichever you believe is true for you, don't you have to extend that same rationale, that same courtesy, to every other person on this planet? I mean, if you believe that you were created by a higher power, a god, then logically, don't you have to believe that everyone was created by that same higher power? I mean, it wouldn't make any sense to say, "well, yes, god created me to be a unique and special human being, but I don't know where you came from." And if you do believe that a higher power created each of us, how can you think that my perception of the world is bad or wrong? How can you think that I am, in any way, a mistake?
Or, if you believe that we are all a product of fate or randomness, if it is valid for you, then doesn't it have to be valid for the rest of us?
But, like I said, I don't know which it is, but I do know why. I know why every single person on this planet is unique. Imagine if you needed to run to the store to buy a loaf of bread. Who are all of the people in the world that make it possible for you to just run into the store for a loaf of bread? The farmers, of course, the people who make and package the bread, the truck drivers who get the bread from the plant to the store, the people who build the roads so that you and the truck driver can get to the store, the people who built the store, the people who work at the store, your boss who hired you so you can afford to buy a loaf of bread, even the politicians who determine the maximum amount of bugs that will be allowed in that bread, all of the parents of all those people, all of the teachers of all of those people...the list is endless.
In other words, the only way this humanity thing can work is if we are all different. And the only way this humanity thing will work better is if we value those differences. If we appreciate the individuality of the people that we share this planet with.
So, as I come to a close, I am going to ask you to do three things. The next time you encounter someone whose perception of the world is different from your own, whose opinions are different from your own, first, consider that if you had been born that person, you would probably be that person. Because I know that, personally, I find it very difficult to hate someone if I know that I could have been that someone. Second, remember that the source of our differences is the same. The reason that person is so different from you is the exact same reason that you are so different from that person. And third, we are all responsible for our actions. But compassion is an action too. Understanding is an action. Love is an action. And I am, we all are, responsible for those actions as well.
I think that if we do those things we might just have a little more peace in the world and a little more peace is always better than a little less. Besides, it would be silly to hate a rose for not being an oak tree.