Seeing Beyond Ourselves
As humans, we tread a line between embracing our social nature and suffering from the common, deep-seated feeling that we are conspicuously different from those around us. We often fail to see that we are not alone in this ego thrashing. We are all, of course, unique as dew drops on a leaf in the morning mist. We vacillate between seeking to distinguish ourselves and fretting that we are too different from the crowd surrounding us. We don’t often see that we are not alone in these awkward feelings. When we stumble across another in a similar situation, it is a revelation. This sudden knowledge that we are not isolated in our suffering, acts as a salve on our quivering egos.
We’ve all been in this awkward situation (think high school), convinced that we stick out like a sore thumb or a single red button among a bunch of dark blue plastic disks. When I think back to those days and situations when I was convinced I was utterly alone, I marvel at how self isolating this thinking was and, with the benefit of many years, I have to laugh at the situation. The thing is, we all eventually realize that most of the people around us feel just as awkward and insecure, even those (especially those) who pretend and posture their confidence. It turns out, after all our individual fretting, one of the things we have in common in our human experience is this painful insecurity that we are irredeemably different. All this occurs in the midst of our often unabashed attempts to differentiate ourselves. Though we are social creatures who strive to belong (and fret over any perceived lack of similarity), our egos and intellects drive us to also seek to establish our uniqueness.
Life is nothing if not unpredictable, and when change comes, we grieve for what was, if only a moment ago, and rail at the differences, big and small. I think that this happens most often when we, at almost any stage of our lives, experience change in the form of loss, illness, success, and unexpected windfalls of fortune. Even though many of us crave variety and it has been shown to be good for the maintenance of neural connections and a youthful spirit; even when good things unexpectedly come our way, it can throw us for a loop. And, of course, when we experience loss and disappointment, it really stresses us and we again feel singled out and alone. In reality, every day, for pretty much every person, changes, good and bad are happening in a never-ending stream. Despite the fact that we live on a planet with 7 billion other people, when something changes in our own lives, we tend to think of it as personal and entirely unique to us.
Many of us have been there. The change occurs and our world feels as though it has been turned upside down and inside out. We think we must be wearing these personal differences across our chests and faces for all to see. But the truth is, (and I tell this to high schoolers all the time) we don’t walk around with signs around our necks, even though it might feel like it. And all the while, other people appear normal and happy to us (because part of our integration into society is learning to wear a mask of perfection and confidence and contentedness). In reality, everybody is struggling with something in his or her life (whether he or she realizes it or not).
When, after feeling detached and alone in our change, we encounter someone who has experienced something similar, it is a revelation. I was 40 when my younger brother died. Most of my peers in age had not experienced such devastating loss (most still had living parents and, in many cases, even grandparents) and so it was as if I was alone and adrift in the sea of grief, that seemed to have singled me out. At the time, I was volunteering for the local auxiliary (a story for a different time) and many of the people working there were in their late sixties and older. And, of course, at those ages, it turned out that many of those fellow volunteers had experienced loss of a loved one. So, it was like a lifeline, to be able to speak with people who knew what I was going through, who could listen actively and provide support.
There is a reason that there are countless support groups out there for everything from grief, to addiction, to adoption issues, to eating disorders, to depression, to marital issues and a thousand other things that many people will experience in their lifetime. People going through changes that shake their worldview do better if they can be around others with similar life-altering experiences. It’s part of that social, need to fit in, aspect of human nature. We want to be different but we also want to belong and have compatriots to commiserate with.
And so we need to see beyond ourselves in order to weather the vagaries of life. If we suffer in isolation, in the faulty conviction that we are unique and alone in the world, then we suffer the further damaging fate of forsaking one of the greatest components of our human makeup, our social nature and our ability to gain succor from fellow human beings. Still, it is hard for us to ignore our egos and the pull of uniqueness, the feeling that we must be nonpareil in all aspects of our lives even though it pains us at times. It is a battle that we all face at some time in our lives, usually at different stages and initiated by change events that startle or overwhelm us.
Most people I have met need to occasionally remind themselves to leverage the experiences of others in their world and learn from the lessons of those who walked before them. When we have the best of intentions, we still must make conscious decisions to do what, at times may be painful or at least uncomfortable to improve our lot in life. I find, as well, that I must remind myself to seek interactions with my fellow human beings. I have to consciously try to see myself.