Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original.
SAM: You know what I do when I’m feeling completely unoriginal? . . . I make a noise or I do something that no one has ever done. And then I feel like . . . unique again; even if only for a second.
LARGE: So no one has ever done that?
SAM: Not in this spot, no. You just witnessed a completely original moment in history. It’s refreshing. You try one. . . . This is your chance to do something that has never, ever been done before and will never be copied throughout human existence. If nothing else, you’ll be remembered as the only person who ever did this. —Garden State (2004)
If a time machine like the one described in David Fiore’s Hypocritic Days (2014) was discovered tomorrow, and I was asked to write a travel brochure for the 21st-century West next week, I’d be sure to mention individualism as one of our era’s big attractions. The freedom to be yourself, do your own thing, choose your own profession, move to a new place, break with tradition, make a new family, be a little weird, have a little privacy: we take these things for granted far too often. Many of our ancestors would kill for what we have. Many of mine died for it.
Many of yours too.
Still, individualism is a human thing, and, like all human things, it’s flawed. And it comes with a cost. Sometimes a hefty cost. So don’t get me wrong: I know full well how much trouble the emancipation of the individual has caused. But I would nevertheless argue that the freedom to be yourself is one of our culture’s greatest accomplishments. It’s well worth fighting for, despite its drawbacks.
At some point, however, in the not-so-distant past, we seem to have collectively forgotten what it is that we were fighting for all along, what it really means to be authentic, what it really means to be yourself—and I think I know why: we’ve confused being yourself with being original.
Recognizing your own ordinariness can be hard when you’ve been raised to believe that originality is a cardinal virtue. But it’s a bitter pill that most of us have to swallow. Because we can’t all be original. Just as there’s a limited amount of beachfront property in the world, there’s a limited number of people who can be first, unique, singular, and truly original (sui generis). To some extent this is a function of the limited number of geniuses in the world. But it’s mostly a function of dumb luck: some people just happen to be the first one to think or do something new. After all, someone has to be first.
If, like Sam in Garden State (2004), you think that to be an individual, to be yourself, you’ve got to “do something that has never, ever been done before . . . throughout human existence,” you’re bound to go through life profoundly disappointed with yourself. Because this is an unrealistic goal, a silly ideal. You’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s time to return to the sensible authenticity proposed by the Roman Stoic Epictetus. In The Art of Living, he maintains that “one of the best ways to elevate your character immediately is to find worthy role models to emulate. . . . Invoke the characteristics of the people you admire most and adopt their manners, speech, and behavior as your own. There is nothing false in this. We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”
Schopenhauer makes a similar point in “On Thinking for Yourself” (1851), wherein he stresses that being the first one to think a particular thought isn’t what’s important; what’s important is that you make a thought your own. What’s important is that this newly discovered idea enter “into the whole system of your thought” as “an integral part, a living member”; “that it stand in complete and firm relation with what you already know; that it is understood with all that underlies it and follows from it; that it wears the color, the precise shade, the distinguishing mark, of your own way of thinking . . . . This is the perfect application of Goethe’s advice to earn our inheritance for ourselves so that we may really possess it: ‘What you have inherited from your fathers, earn over again for yourselves or it will not be yours.'”
It occurs to me now, and only in retrospect, that this is probably the original purpose of that annoying high school injunction: don’t just copy it out, rephrase it in your own words. I always found that exercise tedious and pointless. Drove me nuts. Seemed like a complete and utter waste of time. After all, if Aristotle said it so well, why can’t I just quote him? I remember asking a few of my teachers questions of this stamp. Not once did I receive a good answer. And I strongly suspect that this is due to the fact that they didn’t have one to give.
But I do. Now. Finally. At 40.
Rephrasing one of, say, Nietzsche’s aphorisms, in your own words, using examples derived from your own lived experience, is in fact a worthwhile exercise. I see that now, at long last. Because to do it, and do it well, you have to truly grasp the idea Nietzsche’s referring to; and if you can truly grasp the idea, it’s yours just as much as it’s Nietzsche’s. This isn’t plagiarism; it’s pedagogy. The ideas I present to my students semester after semester are no more “mine” than the air we breathe in the classroom or the water we drink in the hall. They’re a part of a vast spiritual commons, part of the shared intellectual property of the most fascinating animal ever to walk on God’s Green Earth. As such, fear not, Grasshopper: You can be yourself in my class without being original.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Village Explainer (2016)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.