You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
– Max Ehrmann, Desiderata
I want you to tell yourself that you are special. I know, I know. There is too much of this kind of thinking these days. Too much narcissism, too much entitlement. Too many Instagram profiles that act as altars in worship of the self. It might seem more appropriate to remind the world, as Chuck Palahnuik did in Fight Club: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.”
I use the word ‘self’ with a lower case ‘s’ because, as we all know, the way we present ourselves on social media often has little to do with the true Self. Instagram culture, after all, is the product of a society that conditions us to compete and conform rather than contribute or collaborate—to try to stand out while running the same race as everyone else. In that process we are divorced from the inherent qualities that actually make us unique.
As children, we find it perfectly reasonable to ask our family members to sit down and watch while we perform a choreographed dance routine in the living room. When someone says we’ve done a good job with a painting we’ve created, we shrug and say, “I know.” Yet this doesn’t come from a place of grandiosity or even, necessarily, egocentricity. It’s the result of the simple and pure understanding that we have something to offer—that our voice counts for something.
We spend our teenage years and early twenties feeling as if the world revolves around us and then, for most of us, a shift occurs. We begin to sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. For some, this creates greater engagement with the world. Others believe that they are entitled to great things with little work. But for many, we start to believe that we are no more than ordinary, and destined for nothing greater than taking an ordinary job that could just as easily be done by thousands of others. We tell ourselves this is “reality.”
This is how we begin to lose our place and way in the world. Gloria Steinem’s advice to her younger self is, “Do more of what you can uniquely do, and less of what other people can do.” Each person in this world comes equipped with a collection of gifts and talents, and while some might argue that to go off in search of one’s uniqueness is fanciful or indulgent, eastern spirituality holds that it is actually our responsibility to do so. The Hindu concept of swadharma is the idea that we each have our own personal duty or dharma to fulfil—something that is wholly and completely unique to us, based on our individual nature (or swabhava).
Wouldn’t this make sense—that there is a reason why your soul, out of all the souls, was plucked from the ether and birthed into the world at the exact time and place that it was? This concept doesn’t belong exclusively to Hinduism, either. Paulo Coehlo calls it our “personal legend.” In The Alchemist, he writes that, “Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is.” Others refer to it as a calling. And yet it doesn’t need to be as spectacular as Santiago’s epic journey through the Egyptian desert. Put simply, it means serving the world in a way that no one else can.
To really believe in our own specialness—which is separate to and distinct from anyone else’s—is the exact antidote to the toxic Instagram culture. This way, it’s about using our specialness for the benefit of the world. There is a saying, often attributed to Shakespeare or Picasso but more likely dreamt up by a man named David Viscott, that goes: “The purpose of life is to discover your gift. The work of life is to develop it. The meaning of life is to give your gift away.” The world suffers when we bury our gift beneath a life of mediocrity. If we are to make any sort of difference, we must recognise this gift.
And there is another thing: if we don’t believe in our own specialness, we can’t believe in anyone else’s. If we can’t see our own divinity, we can’t recognise it in others. Being aware of the spark of uniqueness that lives inside each other person is to be aware of their humanity and the great connection between us all.