On Being Different


It can sound pretentious to talk about being “different,” but for me it has been a fact of life as long as I can remember, from my early childhood onward. Not only have I felt different from others, but others have told me again and again that I was. What is the nature of this difference? Living at a different level of intensity from other people, thinking differently–but all of this reuses the word “different” and fails to clarify the matter. I could give a better explanation, but it would take a long time.

As far as difference itself is concerned, I don’t believe that humanity can be divided cleanly or absolutely into “ordinary” people and “exceptional” people. Everyone has a difference of some sort; some go to great lengths to hide their own. Some differences are larger or more visible than others, but that does not make the slighter ones disappear. You can see them sometimes the way you would see trees through a fog.

Nor is difference all that matters; life requires a combination of difference and sameness. It’s important to find resemblances with others; otherwise there would be no meeting point, no understanding. These differences and samenesses (or similarities, or sense of similarity), are at their best when genuine. Finding your voice, hitting your stride has to do, in part, with not trying to be different, nor trying to be like others, but instead hearing and following what is there, cutting out the excess, the strain, the inessentials.

Life is not always as full of opportunity as the success hawkers would have us believe. There are limits to our time, money, energy, strength, perspective, and ability. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” each of us is given things to perceive that others do not perceive in the same way.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.

To “testify of that particular ray”–that might not seem like much, but it is everything, or rather almost half. The other part involves listening to others. And then there is still room for duties, sleep, meals, questions, and play. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” someone might say. “You’re speaking as someone without children. For a parent, everything revolves around the child. Parents have no time to think about–” But isn’t it part of a parent’s role, a parent’s gift: to see the child in a way no one else can, while also learning more every day about who this person is?

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment


  1. I do know what you are talking about: it’s interesting that you bring up the perspective of someone who is childless, because while I am not sure this particular way of looking at things would be any different with or without children, I have realized in the last year (spending part of it with children and part of it without) that it’s really a different life.

    • Yes, I believe that it is a profoundly different life, and yet not entirely different from other lives, or at least not in all ways. People often assume that childless people “chose” not to have children, but that isn’t always true, and it’s often not that simple. So even in their priorities, people with and without children may have much in common. Also, parenthood goes through stages; it isn’t one fixed perspective, from what I understand, but many over time. Even so, there’s no getting around the differences between being and not being a parent.


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