When I was little I had a feeling that unless I was there to perceive it, the world did not exist. It ended and was created anew every time I closed and opened my eyes. In other words, I thought myself to be the center of the universe, and not only that, but also its creator. Self-absorbed much? Of course, I knew intellectually, with my rational mind, that this was not the truth. But when you are a child, a feeling is so much more important than a rational thought.
I remember the first time I visited India. I was 17 and had never been outside Europe before. Landing in the multicultural and multicolored chaos that is India was a violent attack on my Norway-adjusted senses, to say it mildly. It felt as though I had landed on a different planet. This could not possibly be the same world I had grown up in. After returning to Norway I got that same feeling again that I had experienced as a small child. India must surely seize to exist when I am not there. It was impossible to believe that that exotic world was still going about its day on the other side of the globe.
What I later found so intriguing about this particular type of orientation was the consecutive conclusion that every single human being must, at least at some point of time, feel the same way. This was a fascinating thought! That each and every one of us is a universe all on our own, made up of silently verbalized thoughts, feelings, mental images, and subconscious impulses. Later, while diving into the wonderful authorship of Charles Dickens I learned that he truly was the master of tapping into all these different universes. In one of his books, I can’t remember exactly which one, he states that each human being that lives, has lived and will live, is a story, a uniquely fantastic story with a unique plot and characters. Isn’t that a magnificent thought? Imagine, none of us, not a single one of us who lives, has lived, or will live, is the same. Mind blowing, isn’t it?
And yet, we are all made up of the same stardust. Our minds, bodies and souls are constructed by the same building blocks. We are, in essence, one. This, to me, is the beautiful human paradox, we are both sameness, oneness, unity, and absolute and irrevocably unique. There is not a single person in the world who has the exact same thoughts-feelings-experiences, i.e. story, as you. None. This insight makes all of us relevant to the history of the life of human kind. If we are all unique, we are all interesting, we all have some unique and valuable contribution to make.
Now, here we reach the essence of this article’s over-ambitious title. When there is not two of the same in a circumstance, that makes each part important and unconditionally valuable. Speaking plainly, we all have unique creativity, thoughts, imagination, insights and talents, and that makes us important to human kind and its history. Exploring and developing this uniqueness, expanding and narrating our story, gives meaning, perhaps the only meaning we really need.
I often hear people stating that individualism is selfishness and self-centeredness, the opposite of cooperation, generosity and compassion. I beg to differ. Abraham Maslow was the psychologist who gave us the famous pyramid of human needs, at the bottom of the pyramid lies the solid foundation of life; what we cannot live without, which is food, water and shelter. At the top of the pyramid we find self-actualization. This is, to Maslow, the peak of human sophistication. When society has fulfilled all our other needs, this is what tops the cake. This pyramid has been criticized to be a very Western concept (Maslow was American). Perhaps it is, perhaps not.
When I was a pupil in primary school, self-development was a part of our curriculum, a small part (about an hour a week), but nevertheless a part. We learned to pin-point our strengths and weaknesses, explore our talents and analyze our personality traits. And more importantly, we learned to use this self-insight to expand our empathy. We learned that our mental health is determined by outer circumstances, to say it simply, if we had not been born in safe, peaceful and rich Norway, our heads and our hearts would, metaphorically speaking, look quite different, and our subconscious impulses would compel us to behave quite differently. And here, in my opinion, lies the key to why individualism is not just a big ego-trip.
To believe in oneself and the value of one’s life in the world, regardless of social status, regardless of our relationships, our physical attractiveness and our socio-economic background, we must first learn to trust that we have something valuable to bring to the table. That is self-actualization. Be it on an international scale rippling through an entire world, or on a smaller scale by contributing and making a difference in a friendship, in the family or in a local community. Self-actualization is a constant noun that cannot be affected by a wavering adjective.
To be human is to matter, and to me, the more I explore my own unique humanity, the more I can matter. In other words, the more uniqueness I bring to the table, the more difference I can make in the world. And if there is one fact that the history of all life screams loud and clear, it is that we are, as individuals and as a unity, on the move. Life wants to realize all its potential. And to me, that is the meaning of life.