Humans are social animals. We live together, work together and inter­rogate the world together. And the fruits of our individual lives, labor and study benefit all of us—not just the individual. But who exactly is “all of us”?

You’re One of Us Now

There are grand taxonomies, of course, in which we can state with sweeping certainty that we are members of the human race, the animal kingdom, life on earth. And even beyond that, it somehow feels perfectly adequate to call the Milky Way “our” galaxy.

That’s the easy part. The more challenging classi­fi­ca­tions are the ones that are closer to home, the ones we feel an emotional connection with. The taxonomies that don’t simply reflect what and where we are, but whose defin­ition we identify with on an intimate level.

We may call ourselves Muslim, or Canadian, or black, or humanist, or gay, or musician, or Trekkie, or vegan… the list goes on and on. And, impor­tantly, the fact that you categorize yourself as such matters. That’s because these simple words do more than denote an aspect of our character or history—they identify us a members of a community. If you call yourself a gamer, for example, that’s your membership ticket to a group of like-minded folks who are also “gamers.” Your self-identi­fi­cation qualifies you as a member of the group, and conversely your group membership justifies your self-imposed identity.

In other words, you and all others in your tribe know that everyone in that tribe is “like us”—that’s the whole point.

The Power of Us

Even something as trivial and incon­se­quential as being color-blind (which I am) can serve this purpose. I do not see myself as belonging to a “family” or “clan” of color-blind people, but when I meet someone who shares this genetic trait, there’s an immediate sense of rapport. Whaddayaknow? You too! And hey presto, there’s something that connects us.

This “us-ness” is incredibly powerful. You can stack it upon itself as often as you like. Heck, you may even be a black gay color-blind vegan Canadian humanist Muslim musician Trekkie gamer! Knock yourself out.

As a side note, there are excep­tions to this free-for-all. Some of these groupings define themselves on the basis of an exclu­sivity that precludes membership of other groups. Religions are partic­u­larly good at this. You may have a hard time, for instance, being a Hassidic Jew and a Jesuit priest at the same time. But that is beyond the scope of this article.

The Limits of Us-ness

Here’s the thing, though. We juggle the member­ships to a multitude of us-nesses, identi­fying with each one. As we saw above, for each of these identities, we assume that the rest of that group is “like us.” And indeed they are—but only for that particular part of what makes you you.

Two people may both be polit­i­cally conser­v­ative and in that sense, each can say that the other is “like me.” But one of them may be Danish, and the other Kenyan. One of them may be Catholic, the other Hindu. In those and a myriad other senses, they are most definitely not like each other. They don’t partake of the same us-ness.

Let me take myself as an example. I carry a Dutch passport, so other Dutch people are “like me.” But I was born in the Dominican Republic, which the vast majority of those other Dutch people weren’t. I am a writer, so other writers are “like me.” But, as you know, I am also color-blind. And most other writers aren’t.

In the end, n=1

No matter how deeply we feel connected to a group that shares any given us-ness, the fact remains that on an individual level, we will always be more unalike than alike. And no matter how vehemently we distance ourselves from another group whose us-ness we don’t share, they will always be more like us than we like to think.

We are all alike in that we are all different.

What really means to be “like you” is not your connection to any one group of people who self-identify in the same way. It’s the entirety of your particular collection of us-nesses that makes you unique, not any one membership card you may carry, however proudly.

So feel free to truly be “like us”. Be yourself. It’s a great club to belong to—membership: one.

• • •

Image: “The Lovers” by René Magritte (museum)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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