Some years ago, I was reading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species to see what the source itself had to say about evolution. Aside from the topic itself, I found myself growing somewhat envious of Charles’ post-mortem grandeur. It’s easy to give someone so much credit retrospectively, not realizing they were mortals themselves.
Darwin recounts how at many times, he grew very, very ill during his research, sometimes bedridden for most of the year. This surely must have been a horrible way to feel and live. But my silly mind found romance in that. “Ah, what a beautiful thing. Perhaps I need to fall severely ill so I can go through enough adversity to be as original as Charles Darwin?”
I kid you not. I would have these kinds of thoughts. It wasn’t just Charles Darwin. Any time I read a biography about some great character, I would find ways to envy their adversity and wish it upon myself. “So and so was hated by almost everyone, and struggled through great depression and frost-bitten loneliness.” Ah, but to be remembered as great, even at the cost of being hated by everyone—what I wouldn’t do to live that same life.
It was borderline troubling for me to think this way. Obviously, my brain misunderstood the situation. But this happens day-to-day, whether we realize it or not. There is a certain romantic effect that occurs when we read or learn about other people's lives. We love stories and the images they conjure in our minds. But when we hear one, we fail to realize the story is compressed. A story may be just megabytes of information, whereas the real life would have been countless and countless trillions of terabytes. A story, no matter how traumatic, how depressing, always has a dream-like aura to it that takes us away from our world and into its fantastical fictional possibilities. It helps us imagine a world beside our own—any world.
But that’s the distinction that finally led me to the understanding of not being envious of a story. We try to find ways to escape our world in any way we can, even for a brief moment. We lust for external experiences. But don’t let your mind fool you: sameness is all anyone knows. You look at this character, and he has this house and this car, which to you seems like a life full of splendor; to him, it’s sameness. The same sameness you know and love of your own life.
No matter how novel, how splendid, how glamorous, how romantic another’s life may look to you as a third-person, in the first-person point-of-view, it is all sameness, and we are all trying to escape the same thing. If you’re rich, you wish to experience something else, namely perhaps, some struggle. If you are poor, you wish to experience something else, namely, less struggle.
I’ll never let a story confuse me again. I’ll never grow envious of a character from their story. I’ll never look at another’s life and wish it for myself. Because the truth is, we are all the same. We are all the same character. The same process. Our common denominators define us far more than our outlying characteristics do. What makes us human—here the desire to flee from sameness—is far more powerful than what makes us externally captivating, like beauty, glamor, and outward displays of success. You can chase, you can change, you can grow—but you can never hide from our common humanness.
Once you understand this, you’ll finally know that nothing is worth wanting for but the heart’s subtle content.