Unique, like everyone else

As I stand here, I feel an expectation to share something with you that is absolutely novel and unique - something that has never been done, thought, or said before.


That feeling - like the content of any message - is hardly unique. 


Independence is a virtue extolled in our culture. When I was a child, one of the greatest insults was to call someone a “copycat.” In those pre-web days, copycat had nothing to do with kitten memes. A copycat was someone who wasn’t entirely themselves and unique. They took others as models.


And so, we grew our hair long, put on blue jeans, listened to rock music, and challenged societal norms. We became unique - just like everyone else. We wore our uniqueness uniforms to demonstrate how countercultural we were - an army of similarly-dressed, individualists - all pretty much the same.


This is one great challenge we face as we try to live well today in this society. We are continually torn between the sense that we must be unique individuals and the reality that we are not - that we are interdependent and part of something greater and much more interconnected.


The notion that we are independent, unique, individuals is something of an illusion. 


I began this morning with a quote by 20th century journalist George Matthew Adams. It bears repeating:

“There is no such thing as a 'self-made' [person]. We are made up of thousands of others. Everyone who has ever done a kind deed for us, or spoken one word of encouragement to us, has entered into the make-up of our character and of our thoughts, as well as our success.”


I suspect that most of us have the sense that we can pick and choose among the influences around us, so we are still individual and unique curators of the selves we are creating. Well, yes and no…  Consider the fact that if a friend of yours becomes obese, you have a 57% higher chance of becoming obese. This is one of the observations highlighted in the work of scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler.


More? Our happiness is strongly impacted by the happiness of those around us. Back pain, eating disorders, clothing choices, economic attitudes, and politics are just a few of the areas where our individual behaviours are socially driven. 


Some would go further to say that our very identities are determined by the world around us.


Musician and poet Gil Scott Heron expressed this sentiment when he said “The way you get to know yourself is by the expression on other people's faces.”


Whether or not we’re prepared to go quite that far, it is evident that, to a very real extent, we are who we are because of the social networks within which we find ourselves. 


There is something that makes me uneasy about this fact. It runs contrary to the cultural emphasis that we must be entirely unique and self-determined - something that is ridiculous on the face of it and yet remains a powerful force upon most of us. “Be yourself” even though that very commandment is a socially-imposed kind of conformity - the conformity of uniqueness, the sameness of individuality. 


I wonder if the most countercultural thing we might actually do is to claim and live the truth of our interbeing. I am who I am because you are who you are and we are all changing each other all the time. The myth of uniqueness and separation is not helpful to us. It leaves us ignorant of who we are and how we grow. It leaves us desperately unsatisfied as we long to be as unique and independent as we imagine everyone else to be. Is it time to think differently?


In the words of Margaret Wheatley:

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals that can go it alone.”