On the Delusion of Uniqueness

22 Mar

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As I get older and continue to grow up—a long process, that one—I find myself assuming less and less often that I am unique.  One of the reasons, I think, is that one of the truly lovely outcomes of getting older is that you get tired.  Now some might think this a lamentable thing but I submit that it’s one of the kindest gifts of nature.

One of my very best friends would talk with me about this mothering woe or that one and how she had to expend so much energy monitoring her child’s moves and contending with the uninvited input from others about her mothering practices.  I told her she’s just not tired enough yet, that fatigue would happily set in before long, and that she could look forward to caring a whole lot less about all those details and even having some energy left for things that rather matter. “It’ll get easier,” I would tell her.  Not because the issues get easier, actually those get more complicated, but because you get better at not caring so dang much about all of it.  What also evolves is that you get clearer on the fact that these quirks of yours, and your child’s, are the same ones surfacing in innumerable other families.  I mentioned to my daughter not long ago, when we were talking about family holiday tensions, that the very conversation we were having at that moment was the same conversation that families all over were having about the holidays, and probably even at that same moment.  It’s complicated.  Families get together and there are tensions.  We are not unique.

It takes a great deal of commitment, and so enormous amounts of energy, to maintain the position that nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen, largely because it requires blindness and deafness from sighted and hearing people.   Truth be told, plenty of people have known the trouble I’ve seen, and worse.  They know the insecurities I feel, they are as confused by their successes, as self-deprecating in their failures, as convinced that they’re the only ones in the room who don’t know what’s going on.  And they always have felt these ways.  But in my younger years I worked hard, it seems, at resisting awareness to this.  It’s exhausting, really, to maintain uniqueness; you have to work so hard to study what other people are doing so you can then work so hard at doing something different, instead of just doing what flies for you even though, through youthful eyes, you saw yourself doing the latter all along.  And it’s exhausting to maintain the self-delusion of uniqueness; you have to work so hard to ignore evidence to the contrary, to pretend that nobody travels the roads you do.  But at this point in my life I am more frugal with my energies and my assumptions.  I am able to conjure up images of other people feeling the darkness I feel.

I was asked to sit on a committee in which I am the only active faculty member and the only department chair; all others are administrative types.  I was honored but intimidated by the invitation, particularly because I it was grounded, according to the big administrator type who extended the invitation to me, in my “ability to think outside the box.” Once I got past the initial self-applause that this wording invoked, I began to reckon with the fact that the person who thinks this way is really annoying to everybody else and, given that these folks have more power than me, and probably more class for that matter, I was none too secure about my role in this group.  This was especially so given the strands of what feel to me like an administrative and staff disdain for faculty that I’m coming to see more clearly in the university setting.  What happens between faculty and their students is actually, it turns out, not at the core of university life as I’d always thought it was, and still think it ought be.  Anyway, I felt like the odd woman out on this committee, like my inability to swoon over spreadsheets would make me an outcast should the fact be revealed, like everyone else was following the indiscernible arguments being put on the table.   But as I conjured up images over the next few meetings of what I know to be true—that other people in the room felt lost, or “out of place,” or like person X should be here instead of them because that person is so much more whatever, I started to quiet my claims that I was the odd one out.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to really hear the countless times when people voice their fears to me—and lots and lots of people voice this.  All the time.  To all of us.  They’ve been saying this stuff to me my whole life, I have no doubt, but I was too immersed in my own junk to notice.    So I still have needling doubts but I catch and redirect myself more readily now when I fall into the trap of thinking that my “issues” are unique.


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3 responses to “On the Delusion of Uniqueness

  1. Frank Daniels

    March 22, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    Oddly enough, I feel more unique every day. Thank you for your words of comfort, though.

  2. Lila Gail Walters

    March 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    This is exactly the way you talk everyday with lots of laughter inserted at appropriate times. I love it!

  3. Ciprian

    February 15, 2013 at 5:23 am

    Great article.

    My opinion is that you may have seen “uniqueness” for what it is: a concept relative to the un-uniquness of people around you. Which is a sort of a trap, because you can end up defining your identity too much in relation to them (even if it would be in opposition or contrast). I see this happening sometimes in the “rebel” youth and hipsters who take automatic opposite positions to the “masses”, without realising that they have just accepted a paradigm completely determined by the “masses”. And ironically, in their quest for “uniqueness” they have even developed uniforms (of cloth and thought) 🙂

    What I prefer to call you, since I was one of your students, was more like idealistic –in the good sense–, progressive and authentic, with a strong bold font on the last one. This is what is compelling and attractive about you as an educator, since it inspires students to bask in their own authenticity and idealism.


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