Recently, we celebrated our High School Reunion. As part of the planning committee we met regularly throughout last year. Most of our work was reaching out to former classmates to invite them, update contact info, and track how many were coming. It got me thinking about why we attend reunions. Everybody is busy, and most of us aren’t in close contact any more. So, why do we go to high school reunions?
High school is an odd time for everyone. It’s an artificial world that doesn’t exist in nature. No other species collects their young, stratifies them by age, ships them off to factories five days a week and expects them to emerge as functioning adults a dozen years later.
Toward the end of this period, as we stumble toward maturity, we become acutely aware of our social context and spend a lot of energy trying to fit in. At the same time, we try to stand out. Finding a balance between fitting in and standing out turns out to be an important theme in life.
As Americans, we live in a society of individuality. We celebrate the individual and we are taught to stand out – whether making a fashion statement, seeking a promotion, or just trying to get noticed, we’re a culture focused on differentiating ourselves. And in competitive activities we take it to another level. For example, consider the Vikings/Packers rivalry. Twice a year everyone puts on their team’s colors and taunts the other side. The rivalry is great, but we could swap colors and you wouldn’t be able to tell the sides apart. They are just like us.
When we were in school, our arch-rivals in Farmington were probably the people most like us. If you looked down from thirty thousand feet, you could see that we lived in the same place, shared the same seasons, and prayed to the same God. They were just like us. But, while we saw each other as rivals, we were different.
Congress follows the same lines – there are no political parties on earth that are more similar than Republicans and Democrats. Both swear an oath to uphold the constitution, believe in the rule of law, and consider themselves American patriots. Yet, their focus on differences has created such dysfunction they’re collectively playing the fiddle while Rome burns.
Historically, I think our darkest periods have happened when we focused on what divides us rather than finding common ground. The Civil War, prohibition, the McCarthy era, Vietnam, and today’s political polarization, are all examples of our country unable to manage its differences.
On the flip side, I think we are at our best when we focus on what we have in common. And when you think about our greatest moments– victories in WWI and WWII, the moon landings, the period of national unity following 9/11. These moments have come when we’ve focused on what we have in common.
Now, its ironic that we struggle most with those closest to us, those most like us. Not with people who are obviously different – with them we can see that we’re different. But we knock ourselves out to to differentiate ourselves from our classmates, our neighbors and our siblings – people who are just like us.
When you visit a place where no one speaks English, its amazing how someone who does speak English feels like a friend. That little commonality brings you together right away. While we focus on our differences, a gulf widens. But emphasizing commonality brings us together.
And that’s what the reunion is about. There’s a part of us that belongs. Many years ago we were a group. And whether we were having a good time or not, we knew we were part of this group. We had the same teachers, we got our driver’s licenses, started dating, went to the same dances, played on the same teams, and shared our formative years. In that time, each individual was uniquely the same.
After high school, we went our separate ways, out into the world. We’ve travelled different paths and tried different things, succeeded and failed. But a reunion is an opportunity to revisit people whose lives intersected with ours, in a small-ish town just south of the Twin Cities. To recall what it was like before we knew better, and to see how we’ve turned out.
And whatever tomorrow might bring, the reunion offers this moment – together – when we celebrate what we have in common, catch up with old friends, and renew acquaintances with people who used be just like us.
I want to thank you all for sharing your lives, then and now.