Why are certain interactions so beautiful to witness?
Imagine a businessman dressed for work, with a small pink backpack slung over the shoulder of his suit, hunching over slightly to hold his daughter’s hand as they walk to school.
Picture a secular Israeli soldier and a yeshiva bochur sitting down together to catch up over coffee.
Consider a great-grandmother listening with rapt attention as her great-grandson relates how he made the winning catch in dodgeball during recess that day.
Each of these interactions touches us. We look at them and are struck by the beauty of connection between unlikely pairs. This is what Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l calls hiskashrus hanigudim, the bonding of opposites. When we take in the sight of two dissimilar entities coming together, the natural response is the feeling of joy.
But where does this joy come from? Why are we moved so deeply when we see the connection of opposites?
A World of Categories
We live in a world of categories. Every minute of the day, we're taking in data about our surroundings and organizing it by creating classifications. Delineating categories brings order to our environment and helps us situate ourselves within it.
Without even realizing it, we define types of communities, genres of literature, and kinds of mental health disorders. These groupings inform us about how to relate to whatever situation we find ourselves dealing with.
We do this with people, too. "Social Categorization" describes the process by which we evaluate and divide people based on the information we deduce about them. We pick up on appearance, age, occupation, religiosity, and social status, and instinctively use these variables to figure out where people “fit” in our mental classification system.
But Categories Also Dehumanize
While categorization undoubtedly assists us in constructing order, it can also lead to removing the human element from the people we meet. Once we know the group to which we think someone belongs, we tend to presume knowledge of what they are like, who they affiliate with, how they think, and how they act. These assumptions serve to dehumanize others by causing us to view them as no more than members of a collective group rather than individuals with their own unique thoughts, feelings, and perspectives.
This dismissal of individual differences is why we tend to not like being categorized ourselves. We naturally recoil when we feel “boxed in” to a stereotype based on little more than our external features. We feel wronged when we sense that someone has looked right past us and arrived at conclusions about our character without having taken the time to know us.
Where does this aversion stem from?
The answer is that we are hard-wired for humanity. We yearn to be seen as unique individuals who cannot fit neatly into a single grouping. We know within ourselves that no specific classification suits us perfectly. We are each much broader, deeper, and more complex than could be encompassed by any particular category that attempts to paint the picture of who we are.
It's true that we all need to belong to a group, but we also need to know that the group’s identity in no way limits our own.
The Beauty of Emergent Humanity
This is the root of the beauty we feel when humanity appears. Seeing an individual acting in a way that does not “fit” the stereotype into which they have been placed makes us smile because we know that we are witnessing a real person emerge. For although we depend on categories to make sense of the world around us, we also find joy in seeing people move beyond them. It alerts us to the fact that the individual before us is much more than their role or title, just like we are much more than ours.
This perspective may help us understand a teaching from Rabbi Yehudah Loewe (the Maharal), that the nature of spirituality is that it cannot be confined to specific borders. Whereas physical items exist within definite parameters beyond which they cannot expand, spiritual entities naturally extend beyond their boundaries and seek to unite with other spiritual entities.
The human soul is one such example. When two people unite in a soul-to-soul connection, the encounter is often described as a spiritual experience. The profound joy that comes from deep connection is a manifestation of two souls reaching beyond their outer limits and coming together in a way that just feels right.
Witnessing the scenes described above is joyful because it resonates. It awakens the small voice inside us that says, “I completely get that. This person is human, just like me.” We look at people being fully who they are and we see a mirror of ourselves.
The father is dressed for a serious meeting, but he also has a tender side that can hold hands and chat with his little girl.
The secular soldier and yeshiva bochur may look like they belong to different worlds, but they move beyond that barrier when they sit together and simply interact as two human beings.
The great-grandmother has developed the wisdom and sophistication that come with age, but she can access her youthful, playful side when speaking to her great-grandson.
These scenes move us because we know them from our own lives. We all experience the multifaceted nature of being human on a daily basis, even if at times we are confused by it as well. Haven’t we all wondered how we could act one way here and another there? Or what someone from one area of our lives would say were they to witness our behavior in another area? Yet we know that all these drastically divergent parts of ourselves are somehow subsumed under the unified umbrella of our identity.
In 15 years of working with people, I have yet to encounter a single individual who did not astound me with the intricacies and unique flavor of their own internal ecosystem. This complexity is what makes us human, truly the epitome of mafli la’asot, a wonder of creation. Our need to be seen as individuals stems from this truth: we want others to know us as one-of-a-kind, the way we know ourselves.
Stepping out of the categories into which we have been placed requires a degree of courage. It is not easy to break rank with the stereotype we have been assigned. Witnessing the beauty of humanity emerging in others may give us the strength to do so.
Life Lessins is a blog about mental health from a Jewish perspective. It is a collection of insights culled from 15 years of experience as a mental health professional working within a religious context.
My aim in expressing these perspectives is to share, enrich, educate, and engage in an ongoing conversation with the broader community.
To read more, please visit www.lessintherapy.com