if only i’d known: being unique is not the purpose of living
Sometime between high school and getting my first real job I grew comfortable with difference. So comfortable in fact I sought to define myself by how different I truly was. No matter where life takes me I tend not to “fit in” and once I’d accepted that, I learned to appreciate the minor similarities I shared with people, be they odd quirks, modes of thinking or a similar taste in books but even more I appreciated that our dissimilarities were greater and valued them even more.
Having spent most of my time in high school wanting to be the same, accepting I wasn’t was splendidly liberating to the point where it gave me a real sense of importance in the world. It made me feel like I had something that would make me significant in the lives of others.
There are of course moments when our claim to insignificance rings true. In their most cliché form they come as you’re trekking through the Himalayas, exploring the Serengeti, or sitting on a cliff face overlooking a vast ocean landscape. The recognition that the world is greater than our perception of it usually occurs as we take time out from our everyday life to relax and ponder.
The odd occasion where it happens in the hustle and bustle of life is enough to send you into an existential crisis. I kid you not.
The other day as I was procrastinating from a very important task by punching random search terms into Google, I came across a lady of anonymity whose bio suggested her thesis topic was virtually identical to mine. My initial thought (as I’m sure is shared by most people in research) was to be supremely territorial. Eventually my brain went from crazy to logical and I decided it might be good to see if she had any publications to her name. In the research world publications serve a similar purpose to a dog peeing on a tree – you mark out your territory and lay claim to your ideas.
I came across no academic publications but I did manage to find her personal website. As I read her blog I could hear my own voice echoed in her thoughts. Her interests were similar, her aspirations were identical but it was her love of frozen yoghurt and her desire to take adult ballet classes that really struck me, because goddammit so do I!
She was obviously talented, well written and pretty and all I could think was she was me, but better. So. Much. Better. I was torn between feelings of admiration and jealousy. I had spent so long thinking there was nobody quite like me it became hard to conceive of a woman walking around the same city who wanted everything I did and also used dry shampoo (maybe because she too was lazy sometimes) and struggled with maintaining a skin care regimen, because who has the time?
After days of mulling over my insignificance, as if lamenting my lack of originality could magically morph me into a different person, and numerous emails to friends entertaining an elaborate conspiracy theory involving ASIO and a stolen identity (think Sandra Bullock in The Net) I eventually came to the very sane conclusion that it matters not how similar we are.
In the same way that thinking I was unique once brought with it great liberation, the realisation that I wasn’t brought with it an equally liberating awareness. As a Twitter friend told me, you can get on with life doing what you do the way you do it without the need to be anything more than who you are. The sole purpose of our existence is not to be different; it’s to be ourselves, in all our predictably boring glory and somehow still keep it interesting. You don’t have to stand out or blend in. You are under no obligation to be fabulous all the time, your only job is to be, in whichever way that happens.
The world’s population currently stands at just under 7 billion. That’s a lot of people to differentiate yourself from. Being determined not to be like anybody else is almost as crazy as trying to be exactly like everyone else. As Chuck Palahniuk says in Fight Club:
You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile.
So don’t waste your time fretting over how “mainstream” you really are.
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