Can we be “on a level” with everyone else, and also be “special”? Important in a way that matters, to other people, and to us?
People get really exercised over that question, and confused, in my experience. We’ve all heard those grumpy complaints about how “now EVERYONE has to be ‘special’” in schools on awards day and about how “in an egalitarian society there’s no appreciation for excellence” and about how “nowadays we try to hold back the gifted,” until the letters to the editor turn into Atlas Shrugged, when all the local elementary school was trying to do was keep that one 2nd grader who didn’t have any particular accomplishment to celebrate at the end of the year from feeling like a miserable loser, because she’s a 2nd grader for heaven’s sake; not trying to reimpose a 95% marginal tax rate on that bazillion-and-oneth dollar of income. Lots of us seem to have a hard time making the relevant distinctions and keeping things in perspective.
We don’t always have to be “better than” others to matter. Mattering doesn’t normally reside in comparison. It has more to do with relationship than with ranking, really. It comes from uniqueness, which is precisely everything about each of us that is incomparable. The wizened workplace reminders are probably right: no one’s indispensable. But on the other hand, no one can exactly be replaced.
We might get confused about that, especially, if we often encounter people in settings where their uniqueness runs against the grain of the operation. Every cashier at Walmart is unique, as is every shopper. But the world that prefers the robots at the self-check-out station pushes us relentlessly towards thinking that all that matters is how we’re all alike.
Everyone’s money is equally green. Though some have more equality than others, in that context. And more is better, as people say. We can easily come to think that mattering depends on where we fall on the scale of more or less.
To get unconfused about all this, it probably helps to spend time with people who matter to one another for all kinds of reasons. Reasons that don’t depend on “better thans.” Reasons that have nothing to do with comparisons and everything to do with incomparability. Reasons that spring from unique gifts and abilities – the ability to bring beautiful music out of a wooden box or a metal tube, for instance. Or unique histories – the person we painted that house with, the person we chopped those green peppers with. Or unique skills – the one person who might know how to hack that thermostat, for instance, or who can always make us laugh.
Those people will matter to us. And then, predictably, yet astonishingly, we will learn from them how much we ourselves matter, too.
Image: “White fields,” by Eklandet, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.