Gold foil illustration of stars


The Fear That Originality Is No Longer Possible

You are unique. And you are surrounded by billions of other people, just as unique as you. Each of us is different, with some new angle on the world. So what does it mean if the lives we’re busy shaping by hand all end up looking the same?

We all spread out, looking around for scraps of frontier—trying to capture something special, something personal. But when you gather all our scattered snapshots side by side, the results are often uncanny. There’s the same close-up of an eye, the same raindrops on a window, the same selfie in the side-view mirror. The airplane wingtip, the pair of bare legs stretched out on a beach chair, the loopy rosette of milk in a latte. The same meals are photographed again and again. The same monuments pinched between fingers. The same waterfalls. Sunset after sunset.

It should be a comfort that we’re not so different, that our perspectives so neatly align. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that we live in the same world. Still, it makes you wonder. How many of your snapshots could easily be replaced by a thousand identical others? Is there any value left in taking yet another photo of the moon, or the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower? Is a photograph just a kind of souvenir to prove you’ve been someplace, like a prefabricated piece of furniture that you happened to have assembled yourself?

It’s alright if we tell the same jokes we’ve all heard before. It’s alright if we keep remaking the same movies. It’s alright if we keep saying the same phrases to each other as if they had never been said before. Even when you look back to the earliest known work of art in existence, you’ll find a handprint stenciled on the wall of a cave—not just one, but hundreds overlapping, each indistinguishable from the other.

To be sure, you and I and billions of others will leave our mark on this world we’ve inherited, just like the billions who came before us. But if, in the end, we find ourselves with nothing left to say, nothing new to add, idly tracing outlines left by others long ago—it’ll be as if we were never here at all.

This too is not an original thought. As the poet once said, “The powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What else is there to say? When you get your cue, you say your line.

Swedish vemod, tender sadness, pensive melancholy + Vemdalen, the name of a Swedish town, which is the kind of thing that IKEA usually borrows to give names to their products. Pronounced “vey-moh-dah-len.”


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