The forecast called for morning snow the next day, and in January and February, especially, there’s always murmuring about a school delay or a snow day. (Kids are hoping for it; parents often not.) We woke up before the sun and the snow hadn’t started falling yet. It was one of the weekdays where we needed to take a bus into the city to pick up the van before school in time for the kids to catch their bus to school and for me to go to work. (It sounds more complicated than it is.)
The snow started just before we left the house for the first bus of the morning, but we took our umbrella and the wait wasn’t long. The snow was falling steadily but not heavy, and I always find the snow more charming when I’m not the one driving (or if I don’t have anywhere to go at all). We walked a couple of blocks through the city to the parking garage where we picked up our van and drove back out of the city to our house. We had just enough time to grab the backpacks and walk to where the school bus picks up.
As we waited, I noticed the snowflakes sticking to my daughter’s hair. And I gasped.
There, on the back of her head, was a beautiful, perfect snowflake, so tiny and detailed I almost thought it wasn’t real. I captioned it “tiny wonder” on Instagram because that’s all I could think to say about it.
If this wasn’t a special snowflake, I don’t know what is.
Special snowflakes. It’s a phrase I can’t remember ever hearing until maybe a year or so ago. Apparently it’s been around for a while, maybe made more popular by the 1996 novel Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. (And the movie by the same name.)
All I really know about the phrase is it’s hardly ever kind. In fact, I had to look it up just to be sure I was understanding it correctly after my husband questioned my definition of the term. (We were both right.)
One of the definitions Wikipedia lists is “a person who has an inflated sense of their own uniqueness.” (A further search reveals that the term snowflake has racist roots. That is so not where I’m heading with this blog post, but now I want to know more about that usage!)
It’s meant to be an insult, I think. A derogatory commentary on someone’s supposed special-ness. I’ve never used it to describe anyone and no one has ever said it to my face, but just the thought of it being said about me makes me feel sad and ashamed. It’s like another way of saying, “And just who do you think you are?”
In my previous post on the topic of identity, I wrote that we can’t all be stars because some of us are made for supporting roles. I stand by that. But that doesn’t mean that being unique or special is somehow wrong.
In fact, I think that every single one of us IS a special snowflake. And we were made to be that way.
Maybe we can’t prove that all literal snowflakes are unique. (I’ve heard that’s true, but is there science to back that up?) Maybe that’s a mystery we’ll always have to wonder about. But when I think about all the people I know (and all the ones I don’t) it’s not hard to argue that every human is a unique being. Even identical twins are not exactly the same in every way, although they probably come the closest.
Every person’s experiences, upbringing, and personality add to an endless combination of possibilities of how those traits are expressed. The Enneagram teachers I follow (see my last post about my love for this personality profile) say that no two people, even if they have the same number on the Enneagram, will express it exactly the same way. (If the numbers were colors, for example, they might all be blue, but they won’t be the same shade of blue.)
So, why does this idea that someone else might be special offend us so much? Why do we have to turn something wonderful about a person–their uniqueness–into an insult?
I don’t know what you were told as a child or what things have been spoken over your life through the years. My own head is a cluttered mess of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard said about me. (Why do I hang on to those and not the good ones?) Recently, I sorted through a box of cards and letters I’ve received in my life (because the box was overflowing and not everything needs to be kept) and I found so many encouraging and lovely words about me and my presence in this world or in someone’s life.
It is a lost art, this telling others what we see in them or how they’ve affected our existence. I struggle, sometimes, to believe that I matter to anyone, that my presence makes a difference in the world. This is one of the shadow sides, as they say, of my personality. But in the last year, especially, I’ve seen how presence is the gift I’ve been given to give back to the world around me. It is small and almost imperceptible, but it changes things and people. It is the reason, I think, that I love my job so much. A lot of it is just being present and paying attention. (You can read more about my goal for the year to be awake.)
But I don’t think that what I have is any more special than what anyone else has. I think it is one small part of something much bigger, a tapestry of humanity that needs every single thread to make a work of art.
Maybe this tendency we have to deride someone else’s uniqueness by calling them a “special snowflake” (or saying they aren’t one) has its roots in our wounds and insecurities. I think we sometimes want to downplay another’s gift because we don’t know what our own is. If someone else is special, then we might feel less special if we don’t yet know what our specialness is. It’s okay to not know. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I fully believe that if you are a living, breathing human on this planet right this second then you have something to offer the world at large. It is no accident that you exist in this time and place.
Uniqueness has no scarcity. If your sister or best friend or mortal enemy is a unique human being that doesn’t mean you’ve been shorted in that department. Your unique contribution to the world is only different, not less. You were not left out when uniqueness was handed out.
And it’s possible that we only see our special gift in isolation. If one snowflake fell from the sky today, would anyone care? But when millions of snowflakes combine to drop multiple inches of snow on the ground, people take notice. Maybe your unique gift needs to be combined with someone else’s to realize its (your) full potential.
This has been a lot of words to say one simple thing: You are a special snowflake. And so is the human sitting next to you. And when you receive that truth with gratitude, as a gift to share with the world, you don’t have to worry about whether anyone else agrees. It doesn’t make you entitled to more. It doesn’t give you license to dominate anyone else.
But it does make you free to be you and live life to your fullest potential.