One in a 100 Billion
Recent estimates place the number of humans who have ever lived at about 100 billion.
The Torah has taught for thousands of years that despite our tendency to clump people into homogenous blobs by time periods, cultures, races, religions, ethnicities, socio-economics, etc., every single one of those 100 billion has been entirely unique.
We spent a good amount of time in XL understanding the sacred centrality of the individual within the collective, and how throughout history, ideological movements have trampled the individual in the name of grandiose causes. We are now ready to begin exploring how the Torah teaches us to identify and appreciate the many facets of what makes every human being one-of-a-kind. This theme will carry the next leg of our journey together as we understand and try to experience the unique expression of life each of us has to share.
What makes a person unique?
Well, let’s think. We can start from the most external factors and work our way in:
Firstly, you’re a human being living on the only known planet with any life in the universe. (Don’t worry, even if we find life out there, I assure you that intelligent life in a universe of mostly inanimate matter is rare. You can feel fortunate with confidence!)
Next, you live in this unique moment in time, which means you’re privy to information from around the globe that is beamed into the palm of your hand nearly as fast as it is generated, and you are heir to over five millennia of accumulated human wisdom. It is worth appreciating that this makes us special on the scale of human history.
You were born and grew up in a certain place with a certain climate and culture, and have absorbed or deflected influences from all the places you’ve inhabited since — undoubtedly shaping how you see yourself and how you interpret the world around you.
The home you were raised in was most likely shaped by the values embodied by your parents. Certain habits were woven into your everyday routine becoming second nature. Whether you had siblings or not, and your siblings’ decisions if you had siblings. Your socioeconomic situation, and the way wealth was spoken or unspoken about. How love was expressed or not expressed. Watershed life events and how your family responded to them — all of these leave indelible imprints on our persona and certainly are part of what make you you today.
People are born into financial wealth or lack thereof, but people are also born into social networks that in so many ways define the course of their lives. Who are your best friends? What about the next circle of friends and the concentric circles around them? How has your social network shaped the contours of your journey and who you are as a result? Have you made choices to radically expand or consciously diminish the size of your web of connections to other people? Have you thought about your place and your role within your web as it stands today?
Your body is clearly unique. What would you be like if you were taller or shorter, thinner or fatter? More in shape or less in shape than you currently are? Darker-skinned or lighter-skinned? Without all the mobility you have or with mobility you don’t? Without senses you possess or with senses you don’t? It’s wild to consider how our lives and our identity could be different with any of these physical large or small…
Every person is gifted. What is your unique constellation of gifts? What are your natural strengths, which perhaps you’ve honed with hard work, but seem to flow through your fingertips when you get in the zone? If we were all superheroes, these would be your superpowers. They can be intellectual abilities. The way you think, remember things, juggle large amounts of information, intuit solutions where others perhaps don’t, or integrate ideas you learn into your day-to-day thinking. Are you exceptional with language — spoken, written, read, drawn, or gestured? Do you have an aesthetic sixth sense? For what in particular? Maybe your gift is one of the many, many forms of creativity. Maybe your strengths are emotional. Are you aware of subtle changes in your feelings or uncannily in tune with what others are feeling? Do you know how to listen in a way that makes others feel heard? Can you read a crowd, or know exactly what music to play so that they start dancing? Do you feel yourself possessed with a spirit when public speaking that grants you the ability to inspire action in others? Are your gifts intimately tied to your body’s self-awareness and prowess? Can you exert control of limbs many others barely know they have? Can you elegantly move your body in concert as if every fiber is one with the rhythm? Do you have a strength I failed to mention?
One could think of personality and its dispositions as a layer deeper than our powers. These describe the fabric of how our powers are woven together and put to use by us. Are you more extroverted or more introverted? More uptight or more loosey goosey? Do you tend to live more in your head and thoughts, or more in your heart and emotions, or perhaps more in your body and its senses?
What about your character beneath your personality? How strong are you? How much has life put you to the test? How much pressure can your convictions withstand?
What challenges have you been through? What parts of you were pinpointed by these tests? What pain have you endured? When and where have you failed and how did move on from those failures?
What are your most core beliefs? Where do they come from? Are you on the receiving end of a wisdom tradition that predates you? Are you religious? Spiritual? Philosophical? Practical? How have these beliefs affected major and minor decisions? Have you had to fight for them? Which ones?
The deepest level of individuality we have words for — the root of your soul — is your most boiled down perspective and source of motivation. Are you more moved by giving to others or by achieving your potential? Are you a purist by nature or more of a synthesizer? Do you think more in terms of obligation and mission or doing what needs to get done?
Lastly, there is an individuality higher than all of these, which cannot be described with words but can be felt, and might be compared to colors on a spectrum. You know what it’s like to be you, and if you merit to get to know someone else well, you somehow are able to grasp this ungraspable sense of who they are too. And yet, you can maybe kind of sort of imagine this essence inhabiting a different body, born to a different family, in a different culture, in a different period of history…would it still be you?
Who are you?
We’d all like to know because we’ll never ever meet anyone else like you.
If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to XL 👆 but perhaps also consider reading our book Nurture their Nature, which is quite a deep dive into these ideas for those interested in seeing their original sources in Torah literature over the last 3,000+ years.
The same verse that teaches that human beings bear similarity to God Himself, made in the “image of God,” possessing awesome creative powers and infinite intrinsic value, first teaches that every person is made in “his [or her personal] image” — completely and utterly unique (Genesis 1:27, see Rashi, Talmud Sanhedrin 38a).
These are the word of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe in Mitzvot HaShkulot, ch. 12: “Every person in every generation, in his being a true individual — no one is similar to him — not only in that generation, but in all the generations before him and after him, there is no one like him.”