The Gift of Being Like Everyone Else

“What We Have in Common with Others Comprises What is Most Cherishable in Ourselves.”

Mockingbird / 1.22.21

Following the wisdom of Alan Jacobs’ recent book, perhaps the best way to understand the present moment (whatever that may be) is to read older books. Which is at least a partial explanation for posting this fantastic quote by the atheist philosopher Alain de Botton, from his book Status Anxiety. Published in 2004, this probably isn’t what Jacobs meant by “old,” but at this point 16 years feels like a lifetime ago — long before social media rewired our hopes and expectations.

According to one influential wing of modern secular society, there are few more disreputable fates than to end up being “like everyone else”; for “everyone else” is a category that comprises the mediocre and conformist, the boring and the suburban. The goal of all right-thinking people should be to mark themselves off from the crowd and “stand out” in whatever way their talents allow.

But being like everyone else is not, to follow Christian thought, any sort of calamity, for it was one of Jesus’s central claims that all human beings, including the slow-witted, the untalented, and the obscure, are creatures of God and loved by him — and are hence deserving of the honor owed to every example of the Lord’s work. In the words of St. Peter, each of us has the capacity to be a partaker “of the divine nature” — an idea which audaciously challenges the assumption that certain people are born into mediocrity and others to glory. There are no humans outside the circle of God’s love, Christianity insists, attributing divine authority to the notion of mutual respect. What we have in common with others comprises what is most cherishable in ourselves.

Christianity bids us to look beneath the surface differences between people in order to focus on what it considers to be a number of universal truths on which a sense of community and kinship can be built. Some of us may be cruel or impatient, dim or dull, but what should detain and bind us together is the recognition of shared vulnerabilities. Beneath our flaws, there are always two ingredients: fear and a desire for love.

To encourage fellow-feeling, Jesus urged us to learn to look at grown-ups as we might look at children. Few things can more quickly transform our sense of someone’s character than to picture them as a child. From this perspective, we are more ready to express the sympathy and generosity we almost naturally display towards the young, whom we call naughty rather than bad, and cheeky rather than arrogant. … [Accordingly] there is no such thing as a stranger, a Christian would insist, there can only be an impression of strangeness borne out of failure to acknowledge that others share in our own needs and weaknesses. Nothing could be more noble, or more fully human, than to perceive that we are indeed fundamentally, where it matters, just like everyone else.

The idea that other people might be neither incomprehensible nor distasteful carries weighty implications for our concern with status, given that the desire to achieve social distinction is to a large extent fueled by a feeling of horror at what might be entailed by being ordinary. The more humiliating, shallow, debased, or ugly we take ordinary lives to be, the stronger will be our desire to set ourselves apart. The more corrupt the community, the stronger the lure of individual achievement.