Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Uniquely Common Life

We are all special little snowflakes.

Or are we?

I'm bringing this up because I just finished reading Judy Blume's Wifey two days ago.  It's been sitting on my shelf for years after I bought it on impulse at a used book store.  For some reason, I picked it up for a quick read on Sunday.  It obviously was a quick read, as I finished it Monday.  Besides being far dirtier of a book than I ever imagined, it also was another in a long list of books that I can relate to a little too much.  Believe me, I didn't expect this summer fluff of a book to hit me the way it did.

In Wifey, main character Sandy is exactly what the title says: the perfect little 1960s housewife.  She makes the same thing for dinner every week, has sex with her husband on Saturdays whether she wants to or not, is desperately unhappy, and has a very dirty mind.  She feels trapped in a marriage to a man she's not sure she ever loved and who doesn't understand her unhappiness or care to change anything about their marriage.  Her husband can't cook for himself, dictates how she should dress, is disappointed when she doesn't live up to his standards, and uses the phrase "wifely duties" quite seriously.

Basically, she was me, pre-divorce.  I found myself exceedingly grateful that I hadn't read Wifey while I was still married.  It would have been far too depressing.

But it's not the first time I've found myself reading a book that hit close to home in all the wrong ways, a book that gave voice to my very private despairs and desires.

Obviously, unhappy marriages are far from unique.  Even though Leo Tolstoy wrote that "happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," I'm not really sure he was correct.  Still, I'm continually amazed when a book (or song or movie) perfectly echoes something I've already thought or said.  Shouldn't I at least have my own unique thoughts about what I've been through, about my own unique experiences?

Apparently not.

The longer I live and the more I see, the more convinced I am that there truly is nothing new under the sun.  There are only seven different plotlines.  There are no original ideas.  Think you've done something unique?  Think again.  Someone is amazed by your brand new thought?  Don't get too excited; someone else already thought of it years ago.  Someone is shocked and appalled by something you did?  Don't feel so bad; someone else has already been there and done that long before you had the idea.

Songs, movies, and books all resonate with us because they speak to our own personal experience.  We relate to these things on deep, intimate levels.  But these things also speak to hundreds and thousands of other people's own personal, intimate experiences.  Look around at a wedding, or a show, or a concert, or a bookstore.  You're not the only one singing along, or crying, or laughing, or reaching that book.

We all live some form or another of the "human experience," after all.  We have all loved and have all lost.  We've been overjoyed and we've been inconsolable.  It's what helps bring us together, recognize each other as human.  We may be different, but we are also recognizably the same.  I can talk to someone who has lived an entirely different life from me, who believes and values different things, and still relate to them, still find common ground.  I can read a book written over 30 years ago and feel like I'm quite possibly reading my own diary.  I can share some of my darkest secrets and have someone unexpectedly and shyly admit, "Me too."

I think it is the inability to see others as human, to actively share in that human experience, that leads to much of life's tragedies and pain.  It leads to the desire to control others, or to hurt others.  I know from experience that it's much easier to hate someone when you can solidly deny that you could possibly have anything in common with them.

Of course, we are not all cookie cutter copies of each other.   Not by a long shot. What fun would that be?  There would be no need for thousands of different books and movies and songs.  We are uniquely individual, in spite of our similarities.  We can experience the same events and feelings, true, but in different orders, with different people, in different places, with different consequences.  The things we create are different, even if not necessarily new or revolutionary.  And so we can keep telling the same stories over and over, the same seven plot lines.  People will keep reading.  Or watching.  Or listening.

Because we can keep relating to each other, story after story.  We're not alone.  We've been there, in one way or another, even when that means being able to relate far too much to an incredibly dirty Judy Blume book.

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