“I am unique”

One of the greatest obstacles to relating to individuals as individuals is need.

The need might be utilitarian. We look for someone who can perform some useful function for us. We might see them as a useful role. This person is an engineer, a designer, a manager, etc.

The need might be emotional. We look for someone to fill a hole in our life. We might see them as some kind of fulfillment, completion or soulmate. As wonderful and romantic as the language might sound, this is still a failure to value an individual for their own individuality. The other is reduced to one’s own feeling of wholeness, or, worse, and more commonly potential wholeness — a longing.

Finally, the need might be cognitive: a need to feel secure in one’s understanding. We reduce people to categories with attributes which help us anticipate and explain their beliefs, behaviors and attitudes and to quickly give us a moral and possibly practical relationship with them.

It’s not that we should never do these things. I believe we always will and even must suppress the individuality of the people we meet. The who-ness of most individuals will never shine through the opacity of the what-ness of what we take them to be. (See Arendt quote below.) But we should know when we are suppressing individuality, to know how to invite individuality and to know what it feels like when individuality approaches. And most of all, we must work at wanting individuality and to be vigilant of those times when we do not want it and want to push it away or even to deny its existence. These kinds of knowing carry us from the ethical into the religious.


Re: the what-ness of individuals, Hannah Arendt’s hard-nosed realism is on the mark:

No society can properly function without classification, without an arrangement of things and men in classes and prescribed types. This necessary classification is the basis for all social discrimination, and discrimination, present opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, is no less a constituent element of the social realm than equality is a constituent element of the political. The point is that in society everybody must answer the question of what he is — as distinct from the question of who he is — which his role is and his function, and the answer of course can never be: I am unique, not because of the implicit arrogance but because the answer would be meaningless.

To know an individual is precisely to make the answer “I am unique” meaningful.

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