Humankind is made up of various cultures and peoples, each of which has its own vision of life and a particular way of solving its problems and fulfilling its possibilities. In every age there has been a predominant culture. Often it has tried to conquer other cultures or impose its own way on other peoples, but without ever entirely achieving its objective. No matter how great their dominion, all cultures have had to tolerate the existence of conceptions of life and the world that are different from their own. This makes us realize that there has never been a single worldview appropriate for everyone, and also that the differences among various cultures pertain to the functions each performs in the whole of humankind.
This is not difficult to understand in general terms. Nevertheless, it is not easy for us to recognize the characteristics and limitations of the culture to which we belong, nor is it easy for us to discover the function of our own culture in its relationship with others. However, we can see clearly the function that we as individuals have within our culture, especially when our work consists of something concrete. If I have been trained as a biochemist, for example, and perform that job in a laboratory, I have no doubts about my function. It is also easy for me to recognize that other people with other jobs contribute in a different way to society. I chose to study and train for the job I have, and others choose differently. This example can be a kind of analogy to understand different cultures.
The chance to choose proves to me that there is more than one option and that not all options are appropriate for me. This does not make me think that the functions I do not choose are bad or wrong, but, on the contrary, it shows me that diversity brings progress and benefits for everyone. Thus I can choose the most suitable function for myself and my capabilities and live in peace. I know that others depend on the way I carry out my particular function and I depend on others as well. We see that all our functions are interdependent and that for all of us to fulfill our functions, each one of us must fulfill our own. We can't get to our job on time if our bus driver doesn't get to his job on time. It is clear that all our functions intertwine and that all are necessary.
However, the functions of great human groups—peoples and cultures—are not so easy to recognize. We do not always have a broad enough perspective from which to observe them, especially if they are contemporary. A culture's time is different from an individual's time. A culture's influence, its importance, and its consequences are measured in centuries rather than years. That is why it is not easy for us as individuals to understand our own culture. It is even less easy to understand a different one, with customs and values that don't fit in with ours.
A person does not choose his culture and his people in the same way he chooses a profession and a place to live. One is born into a culture and molded by it. A person tends to be so identified with his own culture that he can experience what we call "culture shock" when coming into contact with customs, points of view and values that may strike him at first not only as different, but as crazy, ignorant, or wrong. In the past, when cultures were not as closely bound together as they are today, it was common for conquerors to bring back objects or even persons from other cultures as curiosities to be exhibited. It was also common for them to try to convert other peoples to their own beliefs and customs. The imperial culture considered that others were ignorant, and part of the work of conquest was to see that subjugated peoples changed their values and customs for those of the victors. In this way the other cultures would become "civilized."
Today we have a different view. Close contact among the various peoples of the world and the capability of contemplating the earth as a whole help us to understand that cultures are interdependent. We also realize that if different visions of the world exist today, it is because none of them is integral. In order for a universal vision—one suited to all human beings—to evolve, each culture needs to consider not only its own interpretation of life, but also the interpretations of other cultures.
Just as we have awakened to an ecological consciousness at the level of nature, so too at the human level we are developing an ecological consciousness. Vegetable and animal species form a chain in which each link is unique and irreplaceable; likewise, each human being and each people with its culture are indispensable. We are beginning to apply the same degree of tolerance and understanding that we demand from each other within our own culture to our relationship with other cultures.
How can we accelerate this process of harmonization? We can begin by cultivating a broader way of looking at what is different. Certainly each people, each culture, has its way of seeing itself and fulfilling its possibilities. But instead of using these differences in order to oppose one another, why not recognize that each culture contributes something that enriches the whole? Why not recognize that it is by integrating the differences and not by eliminating them that we can reach a universal vision of ourselves?
One of our limitations is to assume unconsciously that we are normal, and to make an evaluation of the differences we perceive based on our own concept of normality. Instead of evaluating the differences according to our assessment of what is good and bad, we can learn to see ourselves as part of a single body. In our body it is precisely the differences that allow the various organs to fulfill their functions and keep the body harmonious and healthy.
If we develop a deep respect for what seems different to us, it will be easier for us to broaden our vision and understand the function of each individual, group, people and culture in the whole of humankind.
Reprinted from Living Consciously.