Tuesday, May 22, 2018

An ordinary life

tl:dr; You are interesting. Your life is interesting.

When I first arrived in America, I was amused by the American obsession for biographies. Bookstores had shelves full of biographical accounts by actors, sportspersons, rich people, celebrities, crooks, ...

Biographies can teach: you can learn from others' lives and temper your own expectations. Looking through other people's lives gives a sense of perspective on your own.

But on the flip-side, biographies can lead to discontent. When writing a biography, the speaker has to spin a story. The author has the benefit of seeing a life with perfect hindsight. This allows them to create a narrative showing how the person was destined to greatness. Or how their effort (and effort alone) led to great success. Or you see a criminal's life in hind-sight and you can spin a tale for why the person was destined for a life of crime. You don't fully see the contribution of circumstances or chance. You don't get to probe. You don't see the choices the person faced.

All this leads to a lopsided view of someone's life. A successful person's life starts to show hints of success at an early age. A crook's life starts to show shady behavior at an early age. Individual effort gets amplified, and the effect of their surroundings get diminished.

After reading such a book, you evaluate your own life and find your life devoid of the same purpose or clarity. After all, the person with the biography reached somewhere, either a position of power  or a the jail. That final destination made the story worthwhile.

And then you wonder yourself: Where am I now?

Most biographies are written with a purpose: to aggrandize, or to spread a message, or to sell a story-book. It is a rare biopic that is truly honest and objective. After all, the narrator is talking about a single person, and it is difficult to get any meaningful distance when the book revolves around one person.

Since these stories are spun around extremes of human achievement, we find it difficult to relate to these stories. We aren't rich, we aren't prominent. The opportunities presented to us are different. Could a kid in Sudan who worked as hard as Bill Gates achieve the same wealth?

But doesn't a kid in Sudan have an equally meaningful life?
After all, we're all equally human. And in their own way, all of our lives are equally interesting.

Over the past week I have been reading an online journal by a person I've never met, and their life (going back to 2005) is fascinating. We share some common interest, and we are similar in age. But our backgrounds differ vastly. I suspect our current lives also differ vastly.

And yet I have learned more about myself by reading this person's account than I did from any biography. Lessons about mid-life, lessons about loneliness, lessons about grief and hopelessness. I have seen the world through this person's eyes. I appreciate my own surroundings in richer color.

See photographs of the best dressed, most gorgeous people and you are disgusted at yourself in the mirror.  Read about the richest, most successful, and you'll never be satisfied by yourself.

All of us have meaningful lives. I live in obscurity and yet my story is as rich as yours.