Maybe We're Not So Different

For the Week of September 21, 2015
by Rubel Shelly

You’re unique. But you’re really the same as me.

I was talking with a friend who was in trouble. Big trouble. He had been in trouble for a long time, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to talk to anybody about it. Now the criminal thing he had done was severely compounded by the alcohol he was drinking. He was desperate!

It seemed to insult him at one point in the conversation when I replied to an element of his tale of woe with something like this: “You’re not the first person who ever did something that terrible, and there are ways to address it.”

Allow me to be defensive for a moment. I was trying to tell him that he wasn’t the worst guy in the world. I wanted him to know others of us had made some really bad moves too. And I especially wanted him to believe that there were some known and identified things he could do to move ahead with his life.

What he heard appears to have been quite different. Nobody grasps how unique his situation is. Nobody understands how he was alternately “tricked” and “forced” into doing some of the things he did. And nothing is going to make things better – at least, nothing he might take in hand to do can improve things.

It seems at least remotely possible to me that some of us have taken the notion of our unique personhood the wrong way. We sometimes want it to mean that we are exceptions to the rules everybody else should keep. We take it to imply that nobody could understand our plight. And we especially don’t want to believe that personal responsibility and guilt attach to messes we’ve made. We want excuses and sympathy for the situation – not accountability and hard work.

With all my “uniqueness,” I’m more like my friend than I’d like to admit. I can make excuses too. I can tell myself the problem is everybody’s but mine. I can blame and judge. Then I can walk away without having to be responsible.

The bottom line here is that each of us either chooses to see herself as a helpless pawn in some cosmic game or accepts personal responsibility for living a life that is authentically human. The former is determinism; the latter is freedom. One is confining; the other is liberating. One defeats and limits you; the other unshackles and empowers you.

It makes all the difference to believe that what you do actually makes a difference. In that, we are certainly all the same.