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Matthew Parris

You're not as special as you think

Why do we all wear down the same path across a park?

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

2 November 2013

9:00 AM

My preferred route from the Times’s offices in Wapping on to the main road takes me across a precinct then down a short flight of concrete steps to the pavement below. Across the top step (for reasons unclear to me) a yellow line has been painted behind the step’s edge, like those lines you’re supposed to stand behind on railway platforms. Crossing this, and turning right when I reach the pavement, takes me straight to the right-hand side of the steps. A rational pedestrian seeking to shorten his journey would choose such a route, but not with any precision: one could plot a range of courses down the steps, all about the same length, the very shortest taking one right up against the border of the steps.

I chose, however, (perhaps ‘found myself choosing’ would be more accurate) a shallow diagonal somewhat in from the border of the step.

I happened to look down as I approached the top step. The yellow line had been worn away exactly where my own foot was about to cross. The definition was striking. To within a few inches, it appeared, almost every pedestrian had chosen the same route. Here the line had disappeared; to each side the paint was a clear, unworn yellow. I stopped to take a closer look.

The course that I (and it seems almost everyone else) was taking appeared to represent a compromise between directness and avoidance of excessive proximity between the right foot and the steps’ border. One can only speculate on the ‘reasons’ for avoiding the edge, but they may include fear of scuffing a shoe on the concrete border, distaste for the slight grubbiness of the inside edge, or even a simple reluctance to cleave right up to the border of a wide stairway in a way that looked obsessive.

Who knows? Who cares? No, what arrested my attention was this confirmation of something anyone who uses the Underground or a habitual route through a churchyard must notice: that everyone goes the same way; everyone brushes the same walls, wears out the same patch of lawn. The depression in the stone steps up to the gents’ loo at the Duke of York in our nearby village of Elton in Derbyshire, the shiny patch of brass on the edging of stairs on the Tube, the bare earth in a park’s lawn that indicates a path taken by walkers who don’t, in fact, take quite the shortest route, and don’t go all the way round, but compromise… these are tell-tales, indicative of a wider and deeper truth than what they may say about a pedestrian’s route-finding: we humans are all remarkably similar.

How often have you tired, all at once, of a celebrity, or lost confidence in a politician, or found your patience with a public figure snapping… how often has a particular broadcast interview enraged you, or an idea engaged you, or a speech moved you, or a simple melody heard for the first time caught you… how often has a fear suddenly been born in you, or a hope inspired you, or a stray thought occurred to you… and you said to yourself ‘this response, this moment, was peculiar to me: my own personal interaction with the universe; it was born in my breast by the circumstances of my nature, my experience, in my own time…’ and found almost to your dismay that you weren’t alone, and millions of others have had a similar reaction at a similar time?

Many people, when children, have fantasised about being a changeling, or perhaps adopted. They feel so special, so different, so odd (sometimes), so separated from the family and community into which they’ve been born. ‘I am not as other men are’ is a thought that has occurred to millions.

Then as we grow older and more experienced, we come, perhaps, to the conclusion that it isn’t Me versus Everyone Else, and that others, too, are very individual, very different from each other. The third stage, however, is harder to accept. It is the realisation that not only are other people remarkably similar to each other, but that we are ourselves remarkably similar to them. Just as we share all but a tiny fraction of our total number of genes, so what we have in common dwarfs what we don’t.

These very slight differences can, of course, be amplified by circumstance into apparent chasms; and a balance can be tipped in one person by something very small which, being absent from another person, tips him quite the other way. But we share with others by far the greater part of our response to the world, even when we are led to reacting differently as individuals.

Our printed and broadcast media as well as anecdotal communications are hugely biased towards the unusual. The person who didn’t honour a debt; the person who didn’t display the expected human gratitude; the person who, being trusted, failed to deserve trust — these stories are about the grotesqueries of human behaviour and easily crowd out from our imaginations the truth that most people behave exactly as we would behave, and as we would expect; and to know how most people will feel or react, we have only to ask how we would feel or react.

‘The news’ is like those graphs economists put into newspapers that on inspection have beneath them, submerged and invisible, all but the little peaks and troughs along the top which they show: so that the vertical axis enters our frame of vision about 90 per cent of the way up from base-zero, and what appear to be vast waves peaking and plunging are in fact ripples on the surface. The deep, which is very deep and which the graphs don’t show, is what doesn’t change or vary much: our common humanity.

The 17th-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne said this, and I cannot add to it: ‘You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.’

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