We all know that that living things are unique, because even individuals that are not unique by birth, become so by virtue of their interaction with their environment. We know this, but because all lives are classified by what they share with each other, such as DNA; and because most species are numerous enough for us to experience their common behaviours; we become less accustomed to recognising the unique behaviour of unique individuals. I do not expect a bird to bark, but one of our resident starlings, living as it does in an area which abounds in small, yappy dogs, has learned to include a bark or two in its vocal repetoire.
This is also true of our experience of human beings: we expect their behaviours to accommodate to a norm, even if that norm changes, for example when a community becomes multi- cultural, but we do not expect any human beings to groom each other for parasites, like certain apes. We are happiest with people whose character and behaviour is familiar, although we are pleased if they can still surprise us by word or action. Most human behaviours can be understood by some sort of quantification, by numbers, percentages, statistical estimates, equations, algorithms and the like.
I’ve just finished reading the final volume of a trilogy by novelist J M Coetzee entitled The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus, and The Death of Jesus. The protagonist is a boy called David, whose adoptive parents Simón and Inés struggle to understand his uniqueness as doubtless Mary and Joseph did with Jesus. These books are difficult, not because they use strange vocabulary or means of expression, but because they chart the life of a unique individual amid the kinds of ordinary human routines with which we are familiar. Parents have expectations of what a child is going to be- oh I don’t mean only about their child’s ability or future work – but about the norms of child development and behaviour. Children who depart from these norms are called geniuses or ‘suffering from learning difficulties’, and these classifications in turn also have norms.
The last novel in the series shows how hard it is for a child who knows his own uniqueness to find any satisfactory role in a world that wants to script every role in advance. A sign of this is David’s love of individual numbers and his refusal to use them in arithmetic or any system that prescribes their interaction. He sees himself also as alone and unique, imagining himself through the one book he has read, as Don Quixote, the man who sees a different world from everyone else. When he becomes ill he asks, “Why do I have to be this child?”
Even his loving adoptive parents do not understand him, wanting him to be even a little like other children, but are able after his death, to process him as a special kind of prodigy. Set free however from the terrible demands of parenting, they ready themselves without great teluctance for a return to ordinary living.
The books are a protest against the speed with which we put people in boxes and the tardiness with which we grapple with their uniqueness. How desperately I wanted my late daughter to be more like other people’s daughters, successfully independent, happily partnered, fruitful in work, surrounded by friends. How slow I was to see and value her unique character and to appreciate her unusual gifts. Yet all sorts of needy people were able to see her clearly and wrote movingly of her after her death.
We are also aware that the more a person insists on their uniqueness, the more they will suffer, because they will be unacceptable to those who have hidden themselves in socially approved roles. This kind of suffering is seen in the story of Jesus, his family and his community. His family thinks he’s off his head and his community sees him as a jumped up charlatan, all of which contributes to his suffering. For the gospel writers as for Coetzee, character is the destiny of their unwise protagonists, who refuse to hide what they are.
Our science tells us that each person is unique; even identical twins are not identical for long, and clones would speedily differ from their model. This is a mystery which cannot be described in general concepts, but only obliquely referenced in riddling phrases, as when Coetzee’s hero says, “I am what I am.” Maybe this is why Coetzee gives his story the name of Jesus. He looks with admiration on the one who is able to assert this identity and with compassion on those who love such a person without comprehending their mystery.
There is a hymn for children that says this truth:
God made me as I am,
Part of creation’s plan.
No one else will ever be
The part of God’s plan that’s me.