NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Uniqueness” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas. Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.
Copyright 2014 David J. Bookbinder
Recently, I had the relatively rare experience of having a movie introduce me to a new way of looking at things. The central idea of Martin Scorcese’s Hugo explicitly emerges midway through the film, but it’s implicit in every frame: Just as, in a machine, there are no “extra” parts, parts without a function, so in the world there are no “extra” people, with no purpose. Each person, like machine component, has a unique place. The trick – because with people it is not as obvious as it is with machines – is to discover it.
In my own life, discovering who I uniquely am has been a long and circumambulating journey. I started out feeling as if I were a misfit, the Ugly Duckling who was different from, and therefore inferior to, those around me. I was the shy and introverted one surrounded by extraverts, the would-be intellectual surrounded by would-be athletes, the Jew among Christians. As a boy I avidly read science fiction, and chief among the stories I sought were the ones about mutants. In these fanciful tales, mutants were always persecuted by those around them, but ultimately they turned out to be the next step in human evolution. I hid out in that world, preoccupying myself with fictional explorations of the universe and private science studies, first of rocks, bugs, magnets, and electricity, then later of chemistry, electronics, and rocketry. By 12, I was doing high school science on my own. By high school, I was researching personal projects in the science and engineering library of the University at Buffalo. I knew I was smart in that way, and like the mutants, I vacillated between devastatingly low self-esteem and a fragile grandiosity.
Thankfully, beginning at the end of high school, the humanist in me began to emerge, and my focus shifted to the realms of people, literature, and visual art. My adult life has been a gradual and uneven unfolding of talents that were mostly disregarded during childhood.
During my late 20s, I lived in a house on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant, near Pratt Institute, a school for the arts and architecture. Rick, one of my housemates, was a few years older than I was. He’d been self-sufficient since he was 17 and had walked many walks in his 35 years – the Navy, business, construction, short-order cook, and an assortment of other jobs. When we lived together, he was an architecture student at Pratt. One day, as we sat at the kitchen table, I lamented how disconnected my career seemed. I was a kid scientist turned English major. I was writing, taking pictures, teaching kids art and carpentry, and helping to renovate the house we lived in. It all seemed makeshift and fragmented. Rick had been showing me an architectural model of a conference center he had designed. It was a beautifully executed architectural sculpture. He tapped one of the wooden panels into place. “I felt the same way you did until I found architecture,” he said. “Then, everything came together.” He smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’ll figure it out,” he said.
Rick found architecture at 35, and decades later he’s still practicing. It took me an additional 15 years to find my way into psychotherapy, at 50. But in this profession, like Rick, I have found that the meandering threads of my varied careers have come together into a tapestry. Now I see that I’m not the Ugly Duckling, not the mutant, and that my history is not a series of false starts. Instead, I am a late bloomer.
In his New Yorker article “Late Bloomers,” Malcolm Gladwell contrasts artists such as Pablo Picasso, whose genius was acknowledged early in his career, with those like Cézanne, who did his best work late in life and only then received widespread recognition. “On the road to great achievement,” Gladstone wrote, “the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.” Early bloomers hit the ground running, but late bloomers seem to need support as, through trial and error, they discover how to realize their talent. Gladwell describes assistance Cézanne received from other artists and from his father, without which he could never have succeeded. “Prodigies are easy,” he explains. “They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”
Late blooming is a phenomenon that occurs not only with artists, but with anyone whose nature is to discover their purpose through trial and error. As a therapist I often encounter late bloomers. They are men and women who have the potential to achieve much more in their lives than they have been able to, not because they lack the ability, but because their potential was not seen and encouraged. Societal and familial conditions squeeze many of us into shapes convenient for shipping and packaging, but not for optimal growth. Without support, these late bloomers, too, may never bloom.
Providing support for blooming, late or early, is one of the chief missions of psychotherapy. Because I have also bloomed late, I turn out to have a set of experiences that is well-suited to fostering the uniqueness of others and to finding the right soil and set of conditions for them not only to blossom, but to thrive.
In Scorcese’s film, young Hugo Cabret is the catalyst who helps each of the other main characters find, or re-find, their way. In doing so, he discovers his unique talent. Like Hugo, my lifelong trial-and-error struggle to find the right vocation has equipped me to recognize the uniqueness of others and to help them find their place in the cosmic machine. Although I know little about botany (I resorted to a plant-identification forum in British Columbia to learn the names of the common flowers I made into mandalas), in another sense I have found my vocation as a gardener.
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