So think about this: even if you’re one in a mil­lion, on a plan­et of 6.8 bil­lion that means there are near­ly 7,000 peo­ple just like you … And con­sid­er for a moment the big­ger pic­ture: your plan­et, I’ll remind you, is not the cen­ter of its solar sys­tem, your solar sys­tem is not the cen­ter of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the cen­ter of the uni­verse. In fact, astro­physi­cists assure us the uni­verse has no cen­ter; there­fore, you can­not be it

~David McCullough Jr., 2012 com­mence­ment speech at Wellesley High School

*

Are we spe­cial? People have always want­ed to believe that human beings sit at the cen­ter of the uni­verse, that we are fun­da­men­tal­ly bet­ter than the rest of the ani­mal king­dom. But then Galileo revealed that the sun is the cen­ter of our solar sys­tem. Charles Darwin showed us that we are basi­cal­ly just bald apes with big brains and poor­ly designed skele­tons. The Laws of Thermodynamics actu­al­ly sug­gest that life aris­es only from the sun’s need to dis­si­pate ener­gy. Leave mol­e­cules under a heat source long enough, and they will orga­nize, metab­o­lize, col­o­nize, and repli­cate. It might take a bil­lion years, but as long as there are stars in the sky to heat up the cos­mos, liv­ing crea­tures will be a nat­ur­al by-product. 

I guess this abil­i­ty to dis­si­pate heat effi­cient­ly makes us spe­cial, but then again, who knows how many extrater­res­tri­als are out there some­where dis­si­pat­ing even more efficiently?

But humans must be spe­cial, right? If we aren’t spe­cial, we are insignif­i­cant, which is just a tiny step away from being dead. Humans share DNA with every organ­ism that has ever exist­ed. Yet the odds of our being born with our par­tic­u­lar DNA code are one in four hun­dred tril­lion. This means that all humans are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly exact­ly alike – and noth­ing alike. 

So we’re both par­tic­u­lar and col­lec­tive, Man but just mat­ter, extra­or­di­nary and run-of-the-mill, a sin­gu­lar being that acts like a god. Maybe ask­ing if we’re spe­cial is the wrong question. 

Care not how spe­cial or unique you are. Care not for your acco­lades or achieve­ments, for your pop­u­lar­i­ty or pros­per­i­ty or pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. It doesn’t mat­ter how famous or suc­cess­ful soci­ety deems us. Because that ulti­mate­ly focus­es on the indi­vid­ual rather than the collective.

The right ques­tion isn’t Am I spe­cial? It should be What is human­ity?

Tell me how human you are. 

Don’t just sleep, eat, pro­cre­ate, and main­tain home­osta­sis. Work towards being a good human, a bet­ter human, one that sits at the feet of death, dis­com­fort, and despair rather than run­ning toward some shiny dis­trac­tion. One that qui­et­ly befriends all the voic­es in her head. One that moves toward love, despite all the cul­tur­al evi­dence that love doesn’t exist. 

Be com­pas­sion­ate and grate­ful, but call your con­gress­woman. Listen and for­give and laugh at corny jokes. Have deep­er, more informed con­ver­sa­tions. Be angry when anger is war­rant­ed and chan­nel that anger into social jus­tice. Do the hard work of being here in this par­tic­u­lar body in this par­tic­u­lar age of Earth. Identify the ways you mat­ter and use that infor­ma­tion to dri­ve pos­i­tive change. Be the one that says a holy yes to all the things as they are, with an eye to improv­ing them. 

You’re just mat­ter. But you do mat­ter. Decide how much. Be the rea­son some­one else believes in good humans too.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.