When I graduated from high school my mom gave me the coolest book of advice and notes from a huge list friends and family. One of the contributors who I respect and deeply admire wrote, "Seek out diversity and what you can learn from it." At the time I thought it just reinforced my already-planned approach: I would go down to Provo but not get caught up with all the BYU zoobies. Instead I would find the more interesting types. But inherent in my interpretation was actually a focus on finding similarity (those like me) and not on seeking out diversity (those very unlike me).
Recently I've had several encounters which finally caused the real meaning of that advice to click. Two of these were particularly memorable:
Blond Bow with Dog (BBWD)
BBWD was a passenger on my flight to Chicago who I first noticed while we were waiting for our flight to start boarding. She was blonde, very nicely dressed, in her late 30's or early 40's, had a red bow in her hair, and a small dog in one of those little carriers that can go under the seat of an airplane. My initial reaction to seeing her included a degree of scorn (due to the red bow on a middle-aged woman) and a degree of dread that I would end up sitting next to the poor dog being stuffed under the seat. Obviously not an "embrace diversity" reaction.
Our flight was delayed for about 3 hours and when we finally started to board, the flight attendants were rushing us all into our seats so we wouldn't miss our departure window. They were clearly feeling stressed and having to deal with a lot of unhappy passengers. When I was settled in my seat, I saw BBWD stop the flight attendant walking by her row and present her with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. She apologized that the doughnuts weren't warm anymore, she had picked up a fresh box on her way to the airport that morning as a gift for the flight crew but in the three-hour delay they had gotten cold.
I was shocked! Not only had this woman thought to bring doughnuts for the crew of an airplane, she kept the doughnuts with her for three hours (in addition to her dog and other carry-on bags), AND she was perfectly pleasant despite the frustrating delay. My scorn and dread of course became shame and admiration. Agreeableness in the face of stress or irritation, and thoughtfulness, especially directed at strangers, are not common character traits. This woman impressed me. While I can't say that her behavior had a pay-it-forward-type ripple effect, I certainly tried to be more pleasant and helpful to others that day, and I've been more conscious of my own agreeableness and thoughtfulness since. Now when I think of her - the bow and the dog are secondary. I remember her more as Thoughtful Agreeable Doughnut Giver.
While we talked I learned that he is my age and from Cincinnati, though not quite the same
Cincinnati as my Montgomery-residing cousins. He was very clean-looking with casual but high-quality, down-to-earth clothes, which made an impression on me because it seemed like a stark contrast from his dirty blue-collar fingernails as well as his bloodshot eyes, semi-yellow teeth, and constant cursing. We talked about his background and career - he was a drug addict, now seven years clean and sober and working as a contract industrial pipe-fitter/technician (or some job that sounds like that). This means he travels all over, only staying in one place for a few weeks or months at the most. His aspirations include working this job until he accumulates enough money to buy some real estate; specifically, he wants a few rental properties or ideally a storage unit facility, which he said would allow him to have at least one steady income source that doesn't require his being present. In reference to owning the storage unit facility he thought it would be like, "Owning a money tree." He also aspires to settle down somewhere without winter cold but also without scorpions (the only things in life that terrify him). When he shook his head after I asked him whether he'd considered southern Utah, his one-word response to my questioning look was, "Mormons." (Side note: He apologized by saying, "No offense if you were one." Not sure what to think of his use of 'were' vs. 'are'...)
So that's Danny. Those facts paint a certain picture of a person who, despite my admiration for the way he has dealt with hard things, I would seek out or choose to befriend.
But he also told me about his uncles - a surgeon, an attorney, and a Bank of America executive in New York. He explained that he knew he had the intellectual capacity to be very successful (and I absolutely agreed by the end of our conversation) but had made poor life choices that he had to deal with. He told me that he'd grown up in a really traditional home, even going to church every Sunday, but in the last few years his parents declared bankruptcy, his Mom came out, and her girlfriend from the UK is coming to live with her. But she and his dad are still living together because he has three younger siblings (youngest age 9) and the parents are trying to make things as stable and easy as possible for them. He was leaving for Cincinnati the next day because he hadn't been home in a year and felt like his siblings needed a big brother around.
He explained his comment about Mormons by saying he couldn't understand a religion that wasn't even as old as the country where it started - a very surprising and interesting response. He told me about the epiphany that caused him to get his life in gear: When he was working with disabled adults he came across a 45 year-old woman who had disabilities but was very aware of them and wished she was capable of having a more "normal" life - specifically just one child, a job she earned and provided opportunities for progression, and a place of her own. After meeting her he realized, "It was EXPLETIVE selfish for me to waste my God-given abilities."
He talked a lot about other people and made insightful observations about how people think and interact. When we were discussing his career thoughts I told him he seemed to be pretty knowledgeable about psychology, and seemed to really enjoy his time working with the disabled, afterwhich he laughed and said, "I've spent a lot of time with therapists." As someone who has also spent a fair amount of time with therapists, I gave him my spiel about how great I think therapy is, how it's like having a personal trainer for your mental/emotional self, and how everyone ought to go in for a tune-up every once in awhile. He responded by saying, for him, the real value of therapy was increased self-awareness, which he thinks is so crucial and important. Suddenly I had one of those moments that occasionally occur in conversations (mostly with good friends) where the other person puts words to a nugget of thought/feeling I share, and just gets in a way no one else has.
Unfortunately, that last comment was where the mechanic came in and told me my car was ready. We shook hands, introduced ourselves by name, and I left. Not only was I surprised by Danny, and I certainly learned from and admired him, but I connected with him on something that I hadn't necessarily connected on with anyone else.
For me - and I think this is what the advice I received was getting at - similarity is safe, but it isn't stretching or stimulating. Diversity of experience, thought, age, character, etc. offers me opportunities for meaningful learning, self-improvement, entertainment, enrichment, empathy - all things that are worth "seeking out".