For this is why we were born: people, all people, belong to each other, and he who shuts himself away diminishes himself, and he who shuts another away from him destroys himself. –Dr. Howard Thurman
I am afraid of feeling common. I desperately need to be able to assure myself that I am unique, that I am valuable. I compare myself to the people around me, trying to pick out differences, trying to validate my existence as a distinct human being. Any encroachment on what I perceive to be my territory—creatively, intellectually, even emotionally—feels immensely threatening. I immediately become disgusted by my own mediocrity. It took me a long time to figure out that the discomfort and even anger I felt when confronted with someone too similar to myself was actually a kind of existential anxiety, that at the root of my seemingly inexplicable response to sameness was the fear of being forgettable, replaceable, obscure. To me, the catch-all sentiment of “you are not alone” just serves to subtly cheapen my own experience.
I am afraid of being lonely. I want—just as desperately as I desire individuality—to feel a connection with other human beings. I crave solidarity. I look at the people around me and silently wish for their understanding. Man is a social creature and, despite my marked introversion and my fear of being commonplace, I am no exception. I don’t want to be told I’m not alone, but the reality of truly being alone hurts too much.
At times, it seems like there’s no way out.
Sometimes, the dichotomy here feels like a choice between suffocating claustrophobia and solitary confinement. Either way, I feel shut in. I find myself wondering if life is a choice between the smallness of insignificance and the smallness of being an outlier. I want to be distinct, but I don’t want to be isolated. I want to feel connected without feeling common. I don’t want to be trapped. I don’t want to feel small.
The only possible way (that I can see, anyway) to reconcile this dilemma is to stop thinking about humanity as a faceless conglomeration of its constituents. All people belong to each other, but sometimes an abstract, all-encompassing love for humankind is not enough to make us feel secure in our place within it. It’s impossible to calculate or comprehend one’s relationship to the species as a whole. It is possible, however, to form meaningful individual relationships—the kind that Aristotle would classify as perfect friendships. This then—a shift in perspective from breadth to depth—is the way out.
It’s not an easy way out. Just ask Aristotle. Sometimes it’s hard to care that much about another human being, especially when it really starts to sink in that that person is every bit as complex as you are. It’s hard to accept that reality instead of just constructing a one- or even two-dimensional image of that individual as you need him or her to be. It’s painful and scary and exhausting. Real, honest relationships—no matter how reciprocal—are incredibly difficult at times. It’s easy to say you love someone as much as you love yourself, that you want the best for the other person no matter what, but it isn’t always easy in practice.
It isn’t easy, but it is essential. When you matter to someone, you are neither common nor alone. When you care about someone, you can validate his or her experience without appropriating it. It’s harder to feel threatened by someone once you have reached a point in your relationship at which you genuinely value the other person’s happiness as much as your own. People who truly care about each other are the only ones who can find the loophole in the quandary of individuality versus isolation. We can recognize each other’s uniqueness.
We are no longer quite so small.
We shut ourselves away because sometimes it’s the path of least resistance. We diminish ourselves by allowing ourselves—and, by extension, others—to become just faces in a crowd. We destroy ourselves by giving up, by despairing that we are hopelessly alone.
There is a way out. It takes courage—more than you can imagine—but it is a thousand times more affirming than clinging to the desire for distinctiveness or acceptance in a large population. It means you’re no longer shut away. You can matter.
Open the door.