As the dusk defines the day, and sadness defines joy, knowing who we're not helps us define who we truly are. To fully discover and appreciate who we are as individuals, we must get to know individuals outside of our familiar social circles. Only by understanding the concepts and customs of those whose views differ from ours can we understand the meaning, and our acceptance, of the ways we call our own. We see most clearly with the help of contrast.
Contrast in our social groups enables us to see that many people's choices and actions often amount to no more than the circumstances of our births: our parents and our communities drive our earliest expressions of identity, until those expressions are challenged by contrasting expressions from very different kinds of people. And opening ourselves to challenges to our beliefs is a risky action. We risk developing doubts, or discarding our lifelong ideas. We also risk not even entertaining doubts, and stifling our thoughts with dogmatic certainty. Personally, I'd rather think, even if it does confuse or upset me; I'd rather know other perspectives to broaden my own views. I purposely choose friends who differ from me in fundamental ways, because I enjoy learning and growing from simply knowing them. That's not to say I can't experience growth with my "comfort zone" friends, who share my kind of background and beliefs; I can indeed grow with them, but not necessarily from them.
Exploring other perspectives via unlikely friendships can change us profoundly. We may reject our former identities, but that would mean they had weak foundations. On the other hand, we may discover that our own identities, by contrast, now ring much more true than ever before. In that case, we grow from knowing that we have chosen our beliefs and actions consciously and wholeheartedly, based on knowledge, rather than on social pressure or apathetic acceptance.
Recently, while helping a college-bound senior evaluate her college application essay, we discussed an article offering guidance in choosing the best college for one's specific needs and desires. The article posed a guiding question about the composition of the student body: Do you prefer to live among mostly people like yourself or among those who are very different from you? The student said she preferred to be among people like her. I found my eyebrows rising, despite my effort not to judge her answer. She preferred a lack of contrast because it felt safe to her. I imagine seeing her after four years in such a homogeneous environment. She will look older, have a bit more book knowledge, maybe even some social skills she never had before, but fundamentally, she will have the same externally formed sense of her identity that she had as a teenager. The passion of her convictions will stem from fear, insecurity, and ignorance, as well as from group expectations.
To know ourselves enough to assert our convictions credibly and passionately, we must get to know a stranger or two. The brown cliff viewed against a brown sky would not inspire a painter, nor would a blue seagull skimming a blue ocean. Beauty and truth illuminate us via contrast.