How different are we from one another?
Today, I was in line at the grocery store, and a lady was at the cash register, quietly beeping the products. I have seen this lady a number of times, and as I stacked my coffee, pasta, and yogurt on the register, I wondered if the lady could recognize customers by the products they bought. While my pile of groceries seemed mundane, I wondered, “What would be the craziest thing a person can buy at a grocery store?” Then I wondered about the lady, and I wondered what clothes she preferred to wear on her day off. My mother works as a cashier, and on her days off, she likes to enjoy her morning cup of coffee, and check on her kids who are living in different states, to see how they are doing. What about this lady? I wondered if she has kids? Grand-kids? Or, maybe, no kids? I wondered what kind of customers she saw everyday, what she thought of them, or whether she was curious about them at all. What does this all matter? It really doesn’t. I am just curious.
I first started thinking about this in high school. I was writing a story, and I found myself questioning why I was so shy in front of others. I tried to dissect all of the reasons for my shyness, and while I couldn’t find a suitable answer, I realized that, shy or not, people may not be all that different from each other. Behind the walls of our houses, we are all living similar lives. Or maybe not? Anyways, I was intrigued by this idea. It didn’t matter whether the person was my teacher, doctor, a librarian, or even my boss. I wondered what they were like – as a member of their family, and a member of their own circle of friends – once they took off their “uniforms” and felt free to show all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Why? I don’t really know.
Anyway, this came to my mind when I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. There is a moment in the book when Bruno wonders why he and his new friend, Shmuel, are sitting on opposite sides of the fence. The only difference he can see is that Shmuel has on a pair of striped pajamas (and that Shmuel seems to be overly thin) while he himself has on ‘regular clothes.’ Bruno thinks to himself:
“What exactly was the difference?…And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
I was stunned by this question. I found that this question resonates with so many moments in history, where people, who really aren’t that much different from each other, have acted cruelly and harshly toward one another because they were separated by different “uniforms.” In particular, I felt that Bruno’s question about who decided which people wore which uniforms was important. There are always people who are in power and people who are subjugated, but the why of the equation does not always seem to make sense. After all, Bruno and Shmuel are both boys. In an “ideal” world (if such a world exists), both should be able to imagine a bright future for themselves. Instead, one of these boys suddenly finds himself and his family living apart from others, separated by a fence, and living a life of uncertainty and fear. And here, I find myself echoing Bruno’s question.
Bruno — a boy who thinks “Heil Hitler” means “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon” — cannot possibly figure out on his own why Shmuel and his family have to wear striped pajamas and live on the opposite side of the fence, unless someone explains to him. But even if someone were to give him an explanation, I wonder if Bruno would understand? Would it make sense to him?
And one final thought came into [Bruno’s] head as he watched the hundreds of people in the distance going about their business, and that was the fact that all of them – the small boys, the big boys, the fathers, the grandfathers, the uncles, the people who lived on their own on everybody’s road but didn’t seem to have any relatives at all – were wearing the same clothes as each other: a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads.
“How extraordinary,” he muttered, before turning away.
Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Random House Children’s Books. Kindle Edition.