Experience

As I grow older I become more interested in the ways that one person’s life may differ from another’s. For years I’d felt a temptation (I don’t know how common it is) to minimize or elide these differences, to believe that we all lived fundamentally the same life. It may have been simple egotism, or a misapplied notion of egalitarianism. Or maybe it was a residue of the adolescent fear of missing out. There’s no missing out, of course, when your own life recapitulates everything essential in human experience.

There are at least three problems with this temptation to minimize differences. First, it’s uncharitable, since it requires pretending to knowledge that we don’t have about the lives of others. Second, it confuses human experience and human nature: the latter may be one and universal even when the former is not. Third, it’s clearly false. A child who dies before adulthood, for example, can’t really be said to have grasped everything essential in the life of the species – nor can someone who’s never raised a child, mourned the death of a loved one, or experienced physical suffering, among other things.

The particulars of one’s own life sometimes feel unimpressive. What we’ve lacked in terms of love or achievement can sting. We may seek comfort by inflating our experience to universal proportions, until we only see the lives of others through the tinge of our own. This distortion is a kind of dishonesty, and maybe self-hatred. There is no such thing as universal human experience. Only the particulars of a lived experience properly make up any life, and to love your life means to love it in its real particulars.

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