“Equal”? How about “Unique”? “Valuable”?   2 comments

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“Growing where you’re not planted”

 

I’m feeling ornery. Walk with me a little?

Of course people aren’t “equal,” whether “created,” “evolved,” “born lucky,” “favored by the Fae” or anything else. We demonstrate this by almost every action we take, whatever we may say we believe. Whether it’s elections, classrooms, job reviews, dating, playing fields, friendships, family dynamics — the list goes on — one person’s clearly not equal to another. We have criteria, hopes and fears, standards, priorities, memories, expectations, goals, feelings, and values that we almost always take into account.

Even where we might expect equality to matter most, such as in matters of law, where we confuse equality with fairness or justice, we often argue our cases with claims of unique circumstances, histories, medical conditions and so on. We seek exceptions, work-arounds, concessions — because we feel fairness or justice requires it. The particulars and specifics of our lives and experience, talents and quirks and character, all those hallmarks of individual identity, really do matter.

But if we’re not “equal,” as I’m claiming here, what we all are is valuable, unique, and irreplaceable. Most versions of equality, far from helpfully “leveling the playing field,” begin by erasing the individual differences that define our unique value. Equality allows us to be lumped together in easily stereotyped groups. We become interchangeable, a homogenized mass. People start to generalize — “all ___ are ___ ” and when we do, we forget or ignore the value of individual identities. To consider just ethnic or racial terms, whether I’m “just another privileged white male” or “just another poor brown minority,” you can more easily write me off. I have no face, no personality, no distinct identity beyond my equality with everybody else in the category, the label pasted squarely on our foreheads. My unique birth, life and death don’t budge such pre-judgments, which is all that prejudice is, as long as they’re invisible.

[You know the story of the starfish? It’s made the rounds, but it still teaches. The version I’ve heard goes something like this: After a storm, one person encounters another on a beach. Driftwood and debris dot the sand, along with sea life stranded by the storm above the reach of the regular high tide. The second person is gently rescuing starfish and setting them back in the water. “Why bother?” asks the first person. “There are so many others that will die. You can’t save them all. How can it matter?” The other person pauses for a moment, with another wriggling starfish in hand, then sets it in the water. “It matters to this starfish.”]

So what does all this have to do with living on this green earth and loving it? Gardeners, for one, know firsthand:  one patch of earth ain’t equal to another. Every location enjoys unique qualities of sun, wind, exposure, soil health, moisture, shade, nearby vegetation, bacteria, earthworms, insects, birds, animals and humans. Likewise for the seedlings, saplings, plantings, harvests, compost heaps, helpful and harmful beasts, bugs and spirits — none are merely “equal.” Or listen to that world just next door; the Morrigan is not Cernunnos. Brighid isn’t Kali. Christianity and Druidry aren’t “equally valid” — a meaningless assertion because of “equal,” not because of “valid.” Each helps catalyze a different life experience of the world. Both are needed. That’s why they’re here. But what good would they do if they were somehow “equal”? And what would that even mean?

The cosmos sweeps along, manifesting both equilibrium, often through relatively stable groups, and change, which appears frequently through the impact of individuals. It’s true that whole swaths of seemingly identical beings get tossed on the scrap heap all the time. A wildfire incinerates a mature forest, a flood washes away topsoil or drowns a lowland habitat. Severe frost or enduring drought destroys a whole ecosystem. Molds, rusts, viruses, spores and plagues decimate or erase innumerable species. Many more seeds and fingerlings, tadpoles and nestlings die than manage to survive. But let a first sapling rise in a meadow, and birds perch there, dropping new seeds that will change everything in a few years. The slightly altered DNA or behavior or adaptation of one or two individuals grants them increased advantages in a changed environment, and over time their line flourishes when others flounder.

Nothing is “equal.” In a cosmos both in love with and wholly indifferent to individuals, that is how we live at all — the ongoing surprise of the individual. Our uniqueness is our glory — and so is everyone and everything else’s. How to serve both these truths — not “equally” but lovingly — that’s a challenge you and I imperfectly explore all our days.

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2 responses to ““Equal”? How about “Unique”? “Valuable”?

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  1. Thank you for articulating this. I was always troubled by the doctrine of “equality,” while believing in justice, without being able to name why I felt so. Something of the tendency to lump people into categories was conveyed, which I intuitively understood as a sophisticated way to dismiss or minimize them while appearing to care. “Unique” comes closer to the truth, and knowing something/someone locally, on the ground, means it’s harder to dismiss or devalue it or them.

    • Hi Cindy,
      “Closer to the truth” is what I was striving for — these things are always a work in progress. Americans, I feel, are so conditioned by our founding documents and schools to accept “equality” as a core American value that it can feel wrong even to question it. But the tendency as you say to lump people in categories is far too alive and well, and the abstraction of equality isn’t helping much. And “appearing to care,” always a political skill, has become an especially hot commodity. Thanks for your words.

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