Replaceable Parts

I confess I have been less than stellar in thought and action recently. (Then again, aren’t we all most of the time, us solipsistic humans?) I can recognize it easily now as jealousy, manifested as a practised withdrawal from seemingly competitive situations and a “hoarding” of everything (attention, empathy, material) that I could definitively claim as “mine”.

Beyonce represents my fears quite well:

I could have another you in a minute
Matter of fact, he’ll be here in a minute — baby
I can have another you by tomorrow
So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable

We aim to be unique. We love to be told we’re special. (At least, I know I do.) Unforgettable? Even better. And we’re raised to believe that; so what happens when the illusion is shattered?

The first step is jealousy, I’ve learned.

An insecurity in core identity leads to seeking validation through the stability of my roles in systems–romantic, social, and organizational.  And when that stability is threatened, I feel jealous.

I fear that I am not unique; at least, not unique enough to be ubiquitous and irreplaceable. Yet the fear of replaceability is unavoidable and unfounded.

Irreplaceability of an individual rests on three tenets:

  1. The individual is unique–there has never existed an identical person with the same skills and experience and there never will
  2. The individual contributes something unique and useful to the system (be it economic, intellectual, social/emotional, or physical)
  3. The role that the individual fulfills cannot be fulfilled by any other individual (Tenets 1 and 2 must be true in order for Tenet 3 to be true.)

Tenet 1 (Uniqueness) depends upon two theories (both of which may be true):

  • A. We are the collective experience of all the thinkers we have ever known.
  • B. We experience life individually and therefore feel and react differently

Taking Statement A to be true, we are not wholly original–but originality need not be a prerequisite for uniqueness. The adaptability and self-questioning nature of human thought allows for recombination of ideas into new patterns, like DNA shuffled into different new genes. Taking Statement B to be true, the individual must be unique because, while their thoughts may be echoes and remixes of the thoughts of others, their life experience must be theirs alone (unique); even on a quantum level events and reactions by unique sets of molecules, thoughts, characters, and situations can only ever occur once in a given instance (and time as we know it only flows one way). Statements A and B may be true and the First Tenet of Uniqueness is thus satisfied; individuals are unique.

Tenet 2 (Unique+Useful Contribution) has to do with how a unique individual can effectively alter their surroundings. In the majority of human systems, an alteration that benefits other individuals in the system is given positive value. Examples of such alterations may include: comfort, intimacy, labour, innovation, ideas, or entertainment, depending on what kinds of alteration is considered a benefit to other parts of the system–or, more simply, what the system can use. This tenet can easily be satisfied if Tenet 1 is satisfied–provided that the system’s definition of usefulness (or its need) for the contributions of that unique individual does not change. Therefore the Second Tenet of Unique+Useful Contribution is conditionally satisfied, as long as the abilities of the individual fulfill the needs of the system.

Tenet 3 (Unique Fulfillment), however, cannot be satisfied. This rests on the fact that Tenet 2 is conditionally satisfied: Tenet 3 cannot be satisfied because the needs of systems can and often do change. Why? Because the systems I refer to are systems of people and people change. When the needs of a system change, the roles of individuals involved change as well, and those individuals must either change their contributions to match systemic needs or will be replaced.

In essence, everyone can be replaced because there will always be changes in the needs of a system and individuals who can fulfill those newly changed needs. Or, the role in that human system will change to accommodate the skills and experience contributed by the individual. This can apply to any system of people–romantic, platonic, familial, or economic. Thus the fear of being replaced is quite valid and unavoidable–you can (and in many cases, will) be replaced.

There is, however, a beacon of hope. The fear of replacement is also unfounded because no matter what happens, an individual is still unique owing to the simple fact that no one else has had an identical life experience–certainly not in the exact same body with the exact same molecules in the exact same timeframe. On an existential level, as an individual, you cannot ever be replaced because no one will ever be you.

Taking this post back to first-person, these armchair-philosophical musings are nothing more than that. One day, I will be more self-secure. One day, I will be terribly hurt by my replacement by someone else. It is inevitable.

But these musings are a comforting lighthouse that I hope will steer me through jealous storms to find the generosity, empathy, and capabilities that I know are somewhere on the other side.

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One thought on ““Irreplaceable”

  1. “Do not do what someone else could do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write as well as you. Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else. And, out of yourself create, impatiently or patiently, the most irreplaceable of beings.”
    ― André Gide

    Being irreplaceable is not the same thing as being in demand. If there were two identical copies of a perfect person, each one would be completely replaceable by the other, but they’d still be popular, valued, in-demand, etc. Even if someone was replaceable by someone better in every way, of course there’s the principle of comparative advantage. But my guess is that those oversimplified points are not very relevant, you’re mostly referring to the insecurity associated with feeling replaceable in a system.

    Here’s a somewhat on-topic quote from a talk Steven Pinker gave based on How the Mind Works.
    “In the case of romance, since you have to set-up house with the best person you found up to a given time, by the law of averages, someone better is bound to show up in the future. The only question is, ‘when?’… At that point, a perfectly rational person would ‘drop you like a hot potato.’ On the other hand, since you are also a rational agent in this hypothetical scenario, you can anticipate that and you would never have agreed to the promise to begin with, anticipating that it would be in the interest of the other party to break it sooner or later.

    The solution is that if you don’t decide to fall in love for rational reasons, perhaps you’re less likely to decide to fall out of love for rational reasons. And the very involuntariness of romantic love serves as an implicit guarantor of the promise. It’s one of many examples in which a lack of freedom or rationality is paradoxically an advantage in situations of negotiation between two intelligent parties

    When we’re in the throes of passion, romantic or otherwise, we show it. We blush, we blanch, we tremble, we sweat, our voice croaks, we get expressions on our face and this has long been a puzzle in physiology. I think one explanation is that we are giving a credible signal that our current course of action is not under the control of the voluntary circuits of the cerebral cortex.

    If you were to whisper in your lover’s ear, ‘You’re the nicest, smartest, best-looking, richest person, I’ve been able to find so far.’ It would probably kill the romantic mood. The way to a person’s heart is to declare the exact opposite: to say that the emotions elicited by the unique idiosyncratic properties of the individual, ‘I can’t help falling in love with you’ and to emphasize how involuntary and irrational it is. ‘I want you so bad and it’s driving me mad, etcetera, etcetera.’”

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