Harmony of the Unique

Last week my women’s choir recommenced after its usual nine-month hiatus. Our director Emily is young, energetic, and somewhat silly (she usually directs children’s choirs). In spite of her light-hearted humor, she demands our best—not only as individuals, but as a cohesive group. Her choral warm-ups train our ears as well as our voices. With up to six voice parts, each woman’s voice has a unique range and quality, yet our aim is to train them so that each contributes to a harmonious sound—without overpowering the rest. What allows us to create the most pleasing, unified sound? Our director. We all look to her for tempo, volume, and expression. When each of us learns the music, listens to our neighbors, and follows Emily’s direction, we can enjoy the wonderful sensation of contributing to a beautiful whole greater than ourselves.

In a world where the gulf between individuals of different dispositions, socioeconomic classes, ethnic groups, generations, religious sects, and political persuasions seems wider than ever, I have been reflecting on the importance of finding harmonious connection with others beyond my family, closest friends, and those with whom I naturally agree. While at times it seems impossible for different factions to get along or to interact without hurt, it helps to remember the common source of our humanity (and life!) and look to Him for guidance and love.

I gathered some quotes as a sort of meditation on the beautiful concept that our unique differences, which often divide us, can serve to perfect our communities and create beautiful harmony when we open our lives to the Lord and allow Him to draw us together.

“The heaven of angels, which holds together as a unit, displays infinite variety. There is not a single angel there who is entirely like another, not in soul and mind, nor in affections, perceptions and the thoughts they induce, nor in inclinations and the intentions they produce, nor in tone of voice, face, body, gestures, manner of walking and many other things. Yet, although there are hundreds of millions of them, they have been and are being arranged by the Lord so as to make a single form, displaying total unanimity and concord. This would be impossible, were not all the angels with all their variety guided universally and individually by the One.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Married Love 324)

“…No spirit, and no angel is ever exactly like any other, even facially. When I even thought about two identical or equal beings, the angels were aghast. They said that every unity is formed by a harmonious agreement of many constituents and that the nature of the unity depends on the nature of the agreement. This is how every community of heaven forms a unity and how all the communities form a single heaven, which is accomplished solely by the Lord, by means of love.

Useful activities in the heavens occur in similar variety and diversity. The function of one individual is never exactly the same as that of any other, so the delight of one is never the same as another’s. Not only that, the delights of each function are countless, and these countless delights are equally varied, yet they are united in a design that enables them to focus on each other as do the functions of the individual members and organs and viscera in the human body; or even more, like the functions of every vessel and fiber in those members and organs and viscera. These are all interconnected in such a way that they focus on what they can contribute to the other and therefore to all, with all mindful of the individual members. They act as one because of this regard for the whole and for the individual.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell 405)

I’ll finish with a long (but worthwhile!) quote from The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, where the author describes the perfect rowing team:

“The team effort – the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes – is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.

The psychology is complex. Even as rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswoman or, for that matter, as human beings. Even if they could, few rowing coaches would simply clone their biggest, strongest, smartest, and most capable rowers. Crew races are not won by clones. They are won by crews, and great crews are carefully balanced blends of both physical abilities and personality types. In physical terms, for instance, one rower’s arms might be longer than another’s, but the latter might have a stronger back than the former. Neither is necessarily a better or more valuable oarsman than the other; both the long arms and the strong back are assets to the boat. But if they are to row well together, each of these oarsmen must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other. Each must be prepared to compromise something in the way of optimizing his stroke for the overall benefit of the boat—the shorter-armed man reaching a little farther, the longer-armed man foreshortening his reach just a bit—so that both men’s oars remain parallel and both blades enter and exit the water at precisely the same moment. This highly refined coordination and cooperation must be multiplied out across eight individuals of varying statures and physiques to make the most of each individual’s strengths. Only in this way can the capabilities that come with diversity—lighter, more technical rowers in the bow and stronger, heavier pullers in the middle of the boat for instance—be turned to advantage rather than disadvantage.

And capitalizing on diversity is perhaps even more important when it comes to the characters of the oarsmen. A crew composed entirely of eight amped-up, overtly aggressive oarsmen will often degenerate into a dysfunctional brawl in a boat or exhaust itself in the first leg of a long race. Similarly, a boatload of quiet but strong introverts may never find the common core of fiery resolve that causes the boat to explode past its competitors when all seems lost. Good crews are good blends of personalities: someone to lead the charge, someone to hold something in reserve; someone to pick a fight, someone to make peace; someone to think things through, someone to charge ahead without thinking. Somehow all this must mesh. That’s the steepest challenge. Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades.” (Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat p. 179)

Many of my regular activities offer me momentary glimpses of heavenly harmony, whether it’s singing in my choir, preparing and sharing a meal with friends, dancing tango, group meditation, teamwork with students or colleagues, or just a real, meaningful conversation with a friend or even a stranger on a plane! These fleeting unions feel like heaven, but often they are only a natural picture of the spiritual harmony we can work towards. A well-executed dance may send me home on a cloud, but if my sole aim in life is to perfect my artistic skills, then I am missing the point, and will ultimately feel empty when the exhilaration fades. The hard work comes when I feel uncomfortable; when others seem disagreeable; when I cannot fathom another’s action or opinion. Here is what I take away from these quotes, and from my own experiences of transcendent harmony: They remind me to listen for His loving guidance before and while I speak; to loose my grip on ego while remaining true to the voice He gave me; and above all, to search for the things that bring us unique souls together and share the joy of that union.

2 thoughts on “Harmony of the Unique

  1. This is beautiful, Lamar! And well timed. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the strengths and limits of diversity. We have beautiful pictures of the variety of heaven and yet I know not all views are equally valid. And some are in direct conflict with each other. Where is the line?

    Your analogies really helped me clarify it. Our variety makes us stronger–if we are all pulling towards the same goal. In our lives, I think that distinction is whether a person or worldview puts God or puts man as its focus.

    Of course that raises the new challenge—that we cant know where an individual is spiritually…but worldviews (aka religions) are a lot easier to assess. For example Secularism is defined by the removal of God.

    Anyway, still lots more to think about but thanks for adding to my ponderings 🙂

  2. Thank you for this perspective, Lamar; it’s definitely thought-provoking. Especially in this time of conflicting views all around the world (!), as you pointed out, it’s so, SO helpful to be reminded of the value of differences, that it actually is no coincidence – and that despite being very similar to and sharing very similar views with some people, we are still not the same; no two people, no two angels are the same. This reminds me of the Stephen Covey quote, “It isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it” – it isn’t about our differences – in a negative sense – it’s about how we handle them, and how we work together towards cohesion. ….Lots of food for thought. Thank you!

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