Every year the snow falls over campus, and every year we tell ourselves we are the first to see it, like children stepping into the world of a fairytale forest. At night, during the snowstorm, my friend cooks us Korean soup for Lunar New Year, bowls steaming with slivers of seaweed. His suitemate plays the electric piano. “Somebody Like You,” someone is the first to suggest, and the romance of it is drowned out by the chatter of ice cubes clinking against cocktails. It should be a perfect day. It should be a perfect week. One girl leans forward, gazing at the piano –– her smile reminds me of a slice of pomegranate. In this room, sometimes you catch falsity in others, the strained plastic of interactions, and you wonder why it is that you feel so small when others’ eyes float past you. It’s because when we feel replaceable, we feel impermanent –– we are thrown from our shells of unique existence and told that so many of us exist that each of us are fleeting to others around us. 

It’s natural to want to feel unique, like there is nobody quite like us in the world. We’ve been told it since we were children, and in high school, Gladwell’s theory that talent is a self-fulfilling prophecy held true for many of us. We realized a small spark existed with a handful of subjects, and we continued to nurture it, cupping our hands around it and looking at the light. Especially as creatives, we convince ourselves by arbitrary measures of external validation that what we have to say is truly special. There’s always that doubt that what you write is a parroting of the texts you’ve read before and that moments of inspiration you’ve felt are only brief moments of desperation, disillusionment and tears. 

Walter Benjamin writes it best in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Consider a photograph, right when it was invented — glossy, beautiful, but easily reproducible, accessible to those who were not there when it was created, in reach for anyone who desires it. Copies can spring up easily, and even the possibility of copies that mimic the original deprive it of that aura, as Benjamin calls it, that follows an object and its natural history. Pried from its aura, the object loses the perception of authenticity, becomes a mimicry of itself. Individuality, Benjamin writes, is permanence — and reproducibility is transience. Why clutch a printed photograph so closely to your chest and prize it behind a glass case when its true self resides in dusty pixels of the camera? 

It’s a sequence of how to become close to people at Yale: to match them, to coax them out of their world and into the liquid membrane of yours. In that process, I often find myself emulating others. I like to think there is a concrete Sarah, but in reality there’s very little of me that no one else can have. So much of writing is bleeding together all the texts that you’ve read in your mind  and fusing them together in your sleep, then writing as you wake up. Isn’t the same true for people? Should I be surprised that I’m nothing unique?

I ask myself this sitting in my dorm room at 2 a.m., staring at an illustrated book of botany that my best friend gave me for my 18th birthday, the fungi and lichens spreading their buttery-white webs beneath the stems of the red toadstools. I think about the lengths we go to in order to feel like a part of something and what it means to be unique. This past Halloween, my friends and I Ubered to an address of a Halloween night market and accidentally found ourselves in a church full of Freemasons, monkey skulls and brains floating in jars of yellowed formaldehyde. As we were leaving, they gave us flyers about joining the organization. The three things required of us were shockingly minimal: a will to volunteer,  a belief in something — anything, regardless of religion — and the desire to be part of a brotherhood. I was shocked at how much I empathized with the desire to feel like a part of something.

Despite how hard I try to convince myself that being one of hundreds at Yale is liberating, it’s disillusioning to think that there are others exactly like you but better— glossy and intelligent, a knife curvier and sharper than you can ever be. 

I look at that open botanical book by my bed. Whoever illustrated these pages knew that their time painstakingly spent etching out the grooves of the bird’s nest fungus – like a cluster of blueberries inside of a deformed lemon-like lid – understood that very few people would see these drawings, yet their delight and precision in capturing the fine details are what lend the plants such fairytale-like beauty. The concept of diagramming nature isn’t new; biology textbooks have always done this, and yet the ones in these artistic books seem to be filled with a devotion that is rare: transcending the desire to be seen. They’re illustrating the same undergrowth of a forest, yet they can twist it into something magical, infusing past knowledge with evident joy.

Uniqueness doesn’t arise when you consciously try to be unique. Uniqueness arises from seeing the world and the people who populate it as unique, from finding authenticity in each of your actions.  It comes from seeing without cynicism, without flattening people and ideas into patterns, without seeing other paths as templates to follow or subvert. Perhaps uniqueness is a construct that is perpetuated by our can-do mentality, painted as a label to acquire rather than an identity to grow into. When I write, not many people may read it, and I’m using the same words others have used before me, but everything I place on the page is a breadcrumb that leads me home to what I really mean — and that’s enough. 

SARAH FENG is a first-year in Trumbull College. Contact her at sarah.feng@yale.edu

Sarah Feng is an associate editor for the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a first-year in Trumbull College majoring in English and Cognitive Science.