Incredibly, Uniquely Ordinary

“Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

— Margaret Mead

On June 4th, 2018, my daughter Em was born. She wasn’t breathing at birth, so she was put on a body cooling protocol called therapeutic hypothermia. She was placed on a mat that maintained her body temperature at six degrees lower than normal and kept it that way for 72 hours straight. Think of it like icing an injury—in her case, an injured brain from a lack of blood and oxygen during her traumatic birth.

She was the only patient in the entire hospital who received the cooling protocol for the four weeks we were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Her situation was unique. The seemingly pressing concerns of the world outside the NICU suddenly evaporated and the gravity and uncertainty of her condition felt uniquely ours as a family.

I asked her doctor how often they do the protocol.

“I’d say we average about one patient every five to six weeks,” he said.

We were now part of this exclusive club that no one wants to join. Each year, the number of families who are forced to face the same heartbreaking reality as we did can be counted on two hands.

But that’s only one hospital. So perhaps what we went through wasn’t so unique after all. Plus, there is evidence that shows body cooling has been done going back thousands of years.

NICUs in the U.S. only started doing body cooling clinically for newborns in 2002. That’s not even a blink of an eye from a historical perspective—it’s more like the first neuron firing off telling history’s eye to blink. So in that sense, it was unique.

But the blink of an eye will pass and eventually feel old to us.

I remember at my dorm at UCSB back in 1997 I made an untoward joke (that I won’t be repeating here) at a friend’s expense. He took it in stride and said, “Hey man, it’s the nineties.” He got a bigger laugh than I did. His joke landed because it felt like there was a bit of truth to it, as is the case for most jokes that work. He was implying that we were living in a more forward-thinking, idealistic future. Thinking of 1997 that way sounds ridiculous to us now in 2020.

It’s like how people respond to horrific news with, “Can you believe this is still happening? In 2020?!” Fast-forward a decade or so and 2020 will sound old.

Okay, but we are definitely living in a unique time in 2020, that’s for sure. Can you believe everything going on these days?!

Are we though?

Is that actually true?

Has anyone in the history of humankind lived their whole life and on their deathbed thought, “Huh, you know what? Nothing all that interesting happened in my entire life.”?

You can look back at any time in recorded history and there was something insane or unprecedented going on. That’s how things are almost all the time. It’s how 24-hour cable news is possible.

Take a look at Marcus Aurelius’s life. He was emperor of Rome—essentially the most powerful man on Earth—between the years 161-180 AD. In his fifty-eight years on this planet, he dealt with a whole host of tragedies—his father died when he was three years old, there were two back-to-back wars throughout his entire reign as emperor, five of his children died (yes, five), and the Antonine Plague killed an estimated five million people (including Marcus).

Eat your heart out coronavirus.

For a more recent example, consider the year I was born, 1977 (don’t do the math, please).

All of this happened in 1977: Apple Computer was incorporated, snow fell in Miami, Meat Loaf released his first album, the Son of Sam serial killer was caught, riots in Chicago, Elvis died, a major flood in Virginia, a two-day hostage standoff in Washington D.C., a huge blizzard in Buffalo, a helicopter fell from the top of a Manhattan building killing five people, senate hearings for MKULTRA (a government mind-control program run by the CIA), and on Christmas Day, December 25, 1977, a two-month-old baby named Lyle McKeany had a massive blow-out poopy diaper.

And don’t forget that during 1977 there were other ongoing crises that spanned many years like the Cold War and the energy crisis where gas was rationed out and there were long lines to fill up your car.

I’ll spare you the blow-by-blow of the insanity of 2020. You’ve gone through it yourself. You understand it.

The point is that it’s hard to get out of our own heads and see beyond what we can see with our own two eyes. It blows my mind that there can be so many of us roaming around the planet with our own thoughts, struggles, ambitions, and worries. And all of those feel very real and very important to each one of us.

But in actuality, we’re not all that special.

Wait, hold on a sec. Maybe in the grand scheme of things each one of us isn’t that special. Sure, I’ll buy that. Doesn’t the fact that we feel unique mean something though?

I suppose it does, to a certain extent. Perhaps it’s part of being human to have this internal feeling of uniqueness. That feeling that no one else is exactly like us. Our experiences make us feel like unique people since no one else could have experienced them the same way as we did. So in a way, we are all a bit different and unique.

Yet it’s important to remember that we’re all in this giant human experiment together.

We resemble teenagers who don’t want to listen to authority and keep having to figure out the same things over and over again for ourselves until the end of human history. Instead, we need to learn from those who came before us and try not to repeat their mistakes.

But if we do, it’s okay.

That’s part of being human.

After all, we’re a unique lot.

I spent way too much time looking up all the major events of 1977 for this piece. I originally wrote a long bullet-point list of them with funny running commentary throughout. It was a bit over the top, so I cut it. But I had fun putting it together and it hammered home the point that there’s always crazy stuff going on. If you’re curious, check it out in this Google doc and feel free to comment on it: All The Insane Things That Happened In 1977.

I encourage you to see what happened the year you were born too. I’m sure it will give you some much-needed perspective.

Thank you to Tom White for live-editing this piece on Zoom in front of my fellow OnDeck Writer Fellows (while I nervously followed along). And thanks to Alicia Kenworthy for her additional editing that helped completely transform this into a much better piece.

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev