Whenever it came to careers or book ideas or relationships, I used to lament the fact that I never seemed to be the first person to have thought up an idea or to love or be loved by a certain person. In fact, the worldwide accessibility of the Internet kind of bummed me out because it allowed me to see how many hundreds and thousands of people had so many similar thoughts and feelings and ideas, and it made me feel so unoriginal. I felt like there would be no way for me to ever stand out in the marketplace—neither the professional nor personal one.
Even just within my own circle, I am the youngest of four children and always felt that everyone else was so far ahead of me and had their heads so much more securely attached to their shoulders.
Eventually, however, I came to see this as such a beautiful thing. No matter what hopes or dreams I might have or the mistakes I would make or the hardships I could face, I would never be the first to have experienced such things. I could see how I had so many people from whom I could learn. That meant that I could draw strength and wisdom from the stories of those who had come before me. It meant I could stand on the shoulders of giants to create a life I love.
It also made me realize that while I have never been the first, I will also never be the last. So I finally believed that the things I’ve been through and continue to go through may actually be helpful for me to share with others. I embraced the idea that my stories may hold value for other people the way other people’s stories have held value for me.
Looking back, it all makes sense. I have been a collector of quotes since I was 12 years old and saved pages upon pages of categorized bits of wisdom to draw upon as needed. Even as an adult, I have thousands of quotes pinned on my Pinterest account to help me draw inspiration and tap into the core of who I am or hope to be.
While I have always loved writing, I have often wondered whether I’m very creative at all or have anything new or special or unique to say. With all of these quotes I’d saved, I worried everyone else had already said everything more beautifully than I ever could. I often pondered whether I’m a better editor than a writer, whether I do better when given someone else’s material than when left to create my own.
Finally it became clear what I love to do more than anything in the world. I love to gather information and wisdom and beautiful thoughts and perspectives and then share them with others. I’ve learned I’m more of a gatherer and a filter than I am a creator. It’s not my ideas that are unique; it’s just the way I love to combine and condense other people’s ideas and how I explain and connect them to my life—to our lives—that has the potential to be helpful to others. Or so I hope.
I am not the first to have the thoughts I share, and I will not be the last. And reading what others have been through or sharing what I have been through may not stop me or anyone else from making the same blunders in life. At the very least, however, it can help us feel less alone when we make them. It can help us feel understood the same way I felt understood the first time I ever read The Catcher in the Rye the summer before seventh grade. There was one passage in particular that has always stuck with me in which Holden’s teacher Mr. Antolini really levels with him:
“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
Almost 20 years after first reading that excerpt, when I traveled alone to Paris and stole away from a tour group on a chilly January afternoon, I was reminded of this concept. At a good friend’s suggestion, I walked up the creaking stairs of the Shakespeare & Company bookstore to view the plethora of poetry books and read the wall of notes left behind by travelers just like me.
They were notes about love and loss that covered an entire wall. As I read each one, I noticed most had been dated within the day or two prior and that there was even a basket filled with notes still waiting to be posted.
This was just one little bookstore with one small cohort of people with thoughts and feelings to express, and the messages were overflowing. It opened my eyes to the fact that no matter how alone we may ever feel in even our darkest hours, we are always, always in good company.
When I think of it now, it reminds me of a thought Jason Silva shared in one of his mind-expanding videos in which he discusses the three deaths that exist in Mexico—the one when you realize you will die someday, the one when you take your last breath, and the one when someone says your name for the last time:
“There is an urge to carve one’s name in the tree—to say, ‘I was here, and this meant something. And it matters...and it matters.’”
So you and I are not the first, and we will also never be the last. And there is something beautiful and comforting about both of those facts. It means we can find a sense of belonging in the words of those who have come before us.
It also means that we can share that same feeling with others when they need it the most. Because you and I are here. We are all here alone yet together. And it means something. And it matters.