Every Wednesday night is amateur night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. On one of these nights in 1934 a seventeen-year-old girl took the stage planning to dance, but the act before her was a dance duo that was so good that she felt she couldn’t follow it. So, while standing onstage, she decided to sing. It didn’t bother this girl that she had never sung in public, in fact she didn’t even know if she could sing! That girl was jazz great Ella Fitzgerald. As soon as she stepped onstage, the core of her life awakened, and she sang the rest of her life. I had the good fortune to hear Ella Fitzgerald live in New York. Anyone who has ever listened to her understands that hers was a natural and unique gift coming from the depths of her soul.
To become your unique self requires a struggle against the tide of sameness and false security of simply fitting in – that is a fight worth having.
To become oneself by finding a way to contribute one’s God-given talents and natural genius to this troubled world – that is a job worth applying for.
The goal in this life is not simply to succeed and “become somebody”; the real goal is to become one’s intended self.
The most revered figures throughout history became memorable because they were uniquely themselves. Nelson Mandela. Mother Teresa. Albert Einstein. Each had to first awaken to a vision seeded within them. People remember them because they managed to manifest a unique inner vision that had meaning in the world around them.
Each soul is rare. And uniqueness has boldness in it and a core of imagination intended to transcend the common attitudes and collective patterns. That is self-evident in great literature and wherever unique imagination has had a chance to flourish. It is also a key to understanding how mass culture has gotten things mass backward. When someone’s inner uniqueness is recognized and encouraged they will demonstrate something exceptional and unusual. They will bring a unique vision to contemporary issues and bring innovation where others would simply rather be complacent. Being unique is the spirit that is already there in each person, the inner intention, primary style and way of being that makes a true individual regardless of the pressure to conform to temporary social patterns and contemporary cultural fashions. At the individual level, each person is here to give something that is not just unusual, not only exceptional, but that is distinctive and valuable by its very nature.
The inner uniqueness for life aspires to meaningful work and genuine purpose. It would have us undertake the seemingly impossible tasks of transforming culture and helping to heal the world. Not because the world can be saved or redeemed in a hurry, but because it is the impossibility of the great problems and projects of life that awakens the sleeping uniqueness within and changes work from a simple job to a life-long, life-enhancing project. And that serves the dignity and nobility of one’s soul as well as the well being of one’s community.
At the end of life the question isn’t whether people obeyed certain rules or avoided certain vices. At the end, the question is whether or not they found the thread of their inner life often enough to learn the destiny that brought them to this life to begin with. To understand and embrace the qualities and talents that makes them exceptional and distinctive.
An old Chinese proverb says, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a unique song.” Exactly what Ella Fitzgerald taught us on that fateful Wednesday night 70 years ago.