One of the common stereotypes often leveled against the younger generations raised in more supportive environments is that we are “precious snowflakes” — so confident in our uniqueness that we have come into the world feeling entitled to greatness. Silly and harmful generational stereotypes aside, both sides of this generalization hold some truth: We are, each and every one of us, unique and special. But that means, by the lame logic, that every one else is too. We are therefore not special in our specialness. Our uniqueness paradoxically makes us common. As the proverb I learned from a song lyric by the lounge act De-Phazz, but which I’ve seen attributed to Margaret Mead, would have it, “You’re so special, just like everybody else.”
This interplay of glory and humility, or in psychological terms, inflation and alienation, is a profoundly Christian idea. I’ve never seen it better articulated than in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus). (I’ve quoted this before on the blog, but it’s worth quoting again.) In the midst of a spontaneous symphony of praise, angelic beings sing:
Each grain [of dust], if it spoke, would say, I am at the centre; for me all things were made. Let no mouth open to gainsay it. Blessed be He!” […] He has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth like a strong river which has need of a great watercourse and fills alike the deep pools and the little crannies, that are filled equally and remain unequal; and when it has filled them brim full it flows over and makes new channels. We also have need beyond measure of all that He has made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you and for your delight I was made. Blessed be He!
He has no need at all of anything that is made. An [angel] is not more needful to Him than a grain of the Dust: a peopled world no more needful than a world that is empty: but all needless alike, and what all add to Him is nothing. We also have no need of anything that is made. Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous, and your love shall be like His, born neither of your need nor of my deserving, but a plain bounty. Blessed be He!
“Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely necessary to you” … “Love me, my brothers, for I am infinitely superfluous.” There is the human — and whole created — condition right there. This same truth was revealed to Julian of Norwich, and the particular way it was shown to her further demonstrates just how inherently linked the two sides of it are. Following a revelation of God’s great goodness to creation, she ponders the fate of “a certain creature whom [she] loved.” (We know nothing about this creature, but I like to imagine she’s thinking about a cat.) Seeing the universal, she is led to consider the particular. But this doesn’t get her anywhere — at first:
And when almighty God had shown me his goodness so plenteously and so fully, I wished to know, concerning a certain creature whom I loved, if it would continue in the good living which I hoped had been begun by the grace of God; and in this particular wish it seemed that I impeded myself, for I was not then told this. And then I was answered in my reason, as it were by a friendly intermediary: Accept it generally, and contemplate the courtesy of your Lord God as he revealed it to you, for it is more honour to God to contemplate him in all things than in any one special thing. I agreed, and with that I learned that it is more honour to God to know everything in general than it is to take delight in any special thing. (Ch 35)*
This idea of avoiding having ‘special things’ or ‘particular friendships’ was common in the Middle Ages. In a communitarian atmosphere in which the siblinghood of all of the faithful was a primary value, this stands to reason from an idealistic point of view. Of course, that’s not how human life works. The only way to ‘actualize’ the universal is in the particular, and this goes in both directions. On the one hand, many have hated people while proclaiming to love humanity. This sense was beautifully uttered by Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular;” and more famously by Linus in the Peanuts cartoon: “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!” But as relatable as this feeling is, it doesn’t actually work. The only way we can love humanity is through loving the broken, bruised, and battered people that make it up. But on the other hand, this also means that the only way to get to the general is through the particular. Just as it seems that we can’t truly understand that the whole world is sacred without holding certain specific places to be sacred, or the priesthood of all believers without having priests, so too can the general love for humanity only be expressed in specific love for specific people.
The same is true of the great, universal love and goodness that was revealed to Julian. In the next chapter, she realized the following:
Our Lord God revealed that a deed will be done, and he himself will do it, and it will be honourable and wonderful and plentiful, and it will be done with respect to me, and he himself will do it. And this is the highest joy that the soul understood… (Ch 36)
There’s nothing especially remarkable about this, except that it seems to be the moment when Julian realizes in her deepest self that the general includes her. Everything God has done in creating, loving, and sustaining all that is (Ch 5) is “done with respect to me,” that is her, Julian. And me, Matt. And you too. Unpacking this a few paragraphs later, she is drawn yet again to the universal, writing that by “with respect to me,” it was meant: “to men in general, that is to say all who will be saved; it will be honourable, wonderful and plentiful, and it will be done with respect to me; and God himself will do it; and this will be the highest joy which can be contemplated …” (Ch 36).
This is a wonderful mystery of life. God acts generally, but we must appropriate it personally, then apply it generally, and work it out individually. There is a glorious feedback loop here of the particular leading to the general and back again.
And so, today and every day, may we keep this mystery close to our hearts. “You’re so special; just like everybody else.” You’re so unique; just like everybody else. You’re so gifted; just like everybody else. You’re so loved, just like everybody else.
* Unless noted, all quotes are taken from the long text of Julian or Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love as translated and set in Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge and James Walsh. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978.
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