At some point in your life you’ve probably heard people equated with snowflakes. This is the metaphor we use to understand human uniqueness: each person has a set of totally individual traits and qualities in the same way that each snowflake has a completely new structure of crystals that never existed before.
I used to identify with this metaphor quite a bit. Whenever I felt like I didn’t fit in I would tell myself that it had to be because I was a beautiful snowflake. I was special and unique, and that was why I felt so alone. That’s the dream, right? You don’t fit in because you’re just too special. Everyone else is a standard, carbon copy drop of rain, but you- you are the snowflake.
I floated along on my snowflake theory until very recently when my incredibly wise boyfriend pointed out the fact that all snowflakes are different, not just one. In a flurry every snowflake is different from every other snowflake, which means that although they all are different, none of them are seen as particularly special in practice. They all have the same ingredients mixed around in different places and I don’t think that’s a great metaphor for humans at all. Humans are endlessly varied: some can see while others can’t; some can sing but not run while others can run but not sing; some read right to left, some read top to bottom, and some don’t read at all. Biologically we are made up of the same elements, but when it comes to what we do, think, see, experience, although I recognize that there are incredibly heartening similarities across centuries and across cultures, each individual is just that- an individual. We all have just a few out of zillions of attributes, unlike snowflakes, which include essentially all the same materials. So maybe this concept of humans as individuals doesn’t really jive with the snowflake idea after all.
Today I posed to my wise boyfriend an alternative metaphor, a chocolate chip cookie. Cookies are made up of all kinds of sweet and wonderful things like sugar and butter, and those all coalesce into one of our world’s great culinary gifts: cookie dough. But then you have these weirdo brown things that feel different and look different and taste a little more exotic- that’s the chocolate chips (and, in this metaphor, me). The chocolate chips are not like the other ingredients, and they don’t mesh in nicely. They stick out all lumpily and transform the whole thing into a totally different cookie. Isn’t it interesting that cookies are named after what makes them different, not what makes them the same?
This was all kind of cool, but still not perfect. Snowflakes didn’t work because if each snowflake is different then the fact of being a snowflake is not actually what makes us special. But chocolate chip cookies sort of don’t work either, because although I like the sound of it, it feels too elitist to say that others are the lowly, unexciting dough while I am the illustrious chocolate chip.
We put the metaphors aside and later, in the midst of a completely different conversation, the wise boyfriend struck again. “Isn’t it funny,” he said, “that human beings are totally symmetrical, but our hearts are on one side?”
Humans are made up of blood and tissues and bones and muscles and a few other things. These things are all pretty standard and although they’re very cool in what they can do and what they allow us to do, we generally all have the same ones and it’s really not all that exciting. In fact, in most humans our limbs are just copies of one another. But the heart- the heart is what gives life to the body. And the heart is off to the side.
The thing that makes us alive is off to the side. Even if you want to argue that the brain is more important, we can say the same thing there: the brain is all the way on the top, it has two totally asymmetrical hemispheres with completely different functions, and it makes our heads stick out in awkward places. The parts of us that are the most important, that give us life, that make us who we are, are not standard. They are extraordinary. They are off-center and they do not have duplicates, but they are meant to be that way.
Now I propose a different metaphor. I think I’ll see all of us as organs or cells within a body. Like different parts of the body, humans are all made of the same things but we each have different functions. In the same way that the body needs totally unique and off-centered brains and hearts, all humans are required by the universe to be in some way weird and imperfect. Otherwise our force of life would have no direction.
The coolest thing about this metaphor is that, as special as I am, it allows me to also have parts that are totally normal. We all have amazing gifts in addition to complete and utter banalities, just like every human body. It would be impossible to have only one or the other. Each body gets hundreds of bones, but only one heart, one brain.
So in a way the best metaphor for humans as individuals and as a collective is that we are exactly what we are. We are all duplicate mixtures of blood and tissues and bones and muscles, but what’s driving those? Our heart.
PS: The wise boyfriend proofread this blog, and informed me that my conclusion has actually already been discovered by psychologists. It’s called group-level functionalism, and you can read about it in this book.