We approach our general lives with a self-centered, generalized set of expectations that often confound us when we are confronted by the inaccuracies that exist within those built-in expectations. In short, we always have a tendency to think our situation is unique when it’s just different. Maybe it would make more sense if I took the time to drag my readers off on a side tangent with me by telling a personal story.
The last semester of college I completed was also my last semester before graduating with my Bachelor’s degree (next stop, graduate school). My wife was pregnant with our daughter at the time, and in an effort to finish my degree before having a newborn in the house, I signed up to take five classes that semester in order to graduate before the baby arrived. I still maintained my full-time work schedule and lived with an insane, pregnant woman during this time (I love you, darling, don’t hurt me!). I knew I was putting myself through a lot, but the benefits of being finished with school in time to welcome our daughter to the world while simultaneously making it possible to take a full summer off before starting graduate school seemed to outweigh the short-term trials of the sweat-and-blood workload of a single semester.
As the final month of the semester was rolling to a close, I was feeling pretty prideful about my situation. I frequently considered, privately, how unique and trying my personal situation was—if only people knew how much I was juggling and how hard I was working to make all this happen; they would think so highly of me then! Mentally, I was patting myself on the back on a weekly basis (if I was forced to offer an estimate). While I am aware of larger problems in the country and world as a whole—you know, small things, really, such as hunger, homelessness, etc.—I felt my situation as a college student was unique to the point that not many other people could understand the workload and stress of my daily life.
Imagine my shock on that late April day when I found myself walking to the car with two other students from my class, chatting away in a friendly conversation focused on unloading the burdens of our stress on one another, to find that my situation was not as difficult as it could get. It is during that conversation that my fellow classmate explained she was taking six classes that semester, which is not only one more class than I was taking, but the maximum number of classes the university allows a student to take in one semester! While she may not have had a pregnant wife at home (it’s likely she did not), she had a full-time job and was juggling more courses than I was. You are not so special, I realized.
The self-centered, generalized expectations I harbored caused me to believe that five classes was likely the most any student might be taking. In fact, I doubted many other students were working a full-time and taking more than the standard number of courses per semester—four. While I’m not an ignorant individual, these are truly the expectations I had in mind as I considered my fellow classmates’ situations—while actually knowing nothing about them personally. Does it make me bad because I made these assumptions? Does it mean I have no grasp of reality? I think it simply makes me human. We all act in much the same way much of the time.
While I was more than a little surprised to find someone had surpassed me in workload, my surprise was far from unusual. We have a tendency to believe our situations our wholly unique. Often, we think our life is more difficult than the lives of others around us. It is human to be self-centered in this way, though looking outside the perspective offered in our own, small little box can prove to be useful. While I have been faced with the glaring truth that I am not that special in the past, this incident was a recent reminder that while we all face different versions of similar circumstances, we all do have similar circumstances. In other words, self-centered as we tend to be, as generalized as our expectations tend to be, we aren’t the only ones conquering our own personal Goliath on a day-to-day basis.
Remembering we aren’t special can be empowering, too. While my conversation with this fellow classmate didn’t happen until near the end of the semester, those last couple of weeks found me in a far different mindset than before. I no longer had those daily trains of thought where I internalized negative feelings. It wasn’t a constant stream of “I am juggling so much,” “No one understands what I am going through,” and “I’ll never make it.” Instead, I found myself thinking, “You are not so special so you can do this” and “If others can do more, then you’re going to be more than able to succeed at less.” It may seem strange to consider these types of thoughts motivational, but they are just that. When we get past our self-centered perspective and stop assuming we’ve got it so tough, we instantaneously become capable of accomplishing more than before.
I would encourage anyone I know (or readers I don’t know, even) to consistently remind themselves they are not special. This is not a self-deprecating sort of exercise. The point isn’t to be “down” on ourselves or remind ourselves how little we matter. We are still “special” in the way our parents explained to us growing up, meaning that we each have great qualities to offer the world in return for living in it. We aren’t so special when it comes to adversity, though. If you’re working forty hours a week, there is someone nearby working sixty. If you’ve spent ten years earning your degree, there is someone nearby who has invested twenty. If you are a single parent with one kid, there is someone nearby who is a single parent with three kids.
While our individual struggles are different in the way they play out, the struggle itself is not unique. Everyone struggles. Almost everyone takes on more than they believe they can handle (and thankfully, almost everyone is wrong and can handle more than they give themselves credit for) in order to achieve certain goals. We can choose to remain in our self-centered viewpoint, only holding to our generalized set of expectations when dealing with the world, or we can step beyond that. Sometimes, unexpected encounters such as the one I had with my classmate will make the inaccuracies of our expectations clear. However, it is more often the case that we will need to make an intentional effort to see beyond our own situation. If you do anything to better yourself this week, this would be my suggestion for a starting point.