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In high school, I remember hearing a particularly enthused English teacher talk about why the works of William Shakespeare are so powerful and are still being read today.

She said it is because Shakespeare uses “universals.” According to her, universals are things that nearly everyone in every culture deals with just by being human. Things like loss, personal identity, integrity and, of course, love are rampant themes in all of Shakespeare’s work. That means you can pick up a Shakespeare story, written hundreds of years ago, and still (once you work through the language!) connect to the struggle of most or all of the characters.

Like Romeo and Juliet, we have all experienced young love and maybe even love that someone opposed. Like Hamlet, we have all wrestled with our conscience and our sense of identity. Like Othello, we have encountered gossip and jealousy. The list goes on, of course. These “universals” have a way of bringing us together and connecting us.

However, we also recognize that these common themes are experienced in different ways by each of us. That means that while all of us may experience love, we may respond to it in ways that are unique to us. Also, things that may be tempting to others may not be a problem for us.

A whole complicated array of life experiences, biological facts and other circumstances come into play when we deal with the universal elements of the cycles of life. Tragedies also complicate matters. Lives affected by sudden tragedy cannot be expected to mirror the precise mannerisms, reactions or experiences of those who have not experienced such tragedies.

These simple truths can help us in at least two ways.

First, we can take comfort in the fact that as great writings of Shakespeare or faith remind us, we all share common struggles, joys and experiences in general. We have basic needs, basic joys and basic disappointments (like loss) that are part of our journey. And because we all experience such “universals,” we can look to others in our communities (especially our faith communities) to provide comfort and guidance as we deal with these matters.

On the other hand, my story and your story do not have to be identical. Indeed, our responses and even many of our beliefs don’t have to be exact for us to be “good” or “right.” That does not mean to imply that there is no basis for right and wrong. Many of us do believe that some things are right and other things are wrong. However, given the uniqueness of human experiences, we can acknowledge that there are areas of life that have no clear-cut “right or wrong” answer.

A Christian writer in the early 1600s once wrote a phrase that has been attributed to many religious thinkers throughout history. In English, the phrase says this: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The phrase means that there are certain agreed-upon essentials for people of faith that bind us together. However, there are things (considered “non-essentials”) upon which we can disagree and even respond differently. Finally, even in disagreement, the call for all of us is “charity,” which is an ancient way of saying, “love.”

Your story and mine may share many elements, and that’s helpful for us both. However, your story and mine can be different in some ways, as well. And that’s OK.

Charles Christian anchors the evening news for News-Press NOW and also serves as an ordained minister of United Methodist Churches in Gower and Helena, Missouri.

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