Does sentience make us special?

From the time I was a kid, I was told I was special. I was special because my parents loved me. I was special because Caucasian Jesus loved me. I was special because I was born in the Muthafuckin-U-S-of-A. Et cetera. And I’m not alone. I suspect most of us grow up feeling somehow special, somehow significant. We all feel like the star of our very own Truman Show. One reason we spend so much of life being pissy is because we don’t understand why other people don’t treat us like the rock stars we feel we are.

If you ever get around to asking yourself what makes you any more important than the person who just cut you off in traffic or the lady who got arrested last week for blowing her Rottweiler, you will likely eventually settle upon this answer: absolutely nothing. And if you do decide you’re more important than that person, your reasons will likely either revolve around (a) an invisible deity’s say-so or (b) your moral/intellectual/racial/whateveral superiority to such persons.

If you have come to the realization that you’re no more important than any other human being: congratulations. You’re probably not going to be any happier, but at least you won’t go around feeling like your happiness is everybody else’s job. Still, having asked and reluctantly answered these questions, a bigger question I suspect many of us never get around to asking is what the hell makes us so special. And by “us” I mean humanity.

For a long time–okay, more like a couple years of high school–I thought the answer was sentience. Even in the absence of Creatio or the Easter Bunny, even without the tide coming and going only on my say-so, I thought: Surely sentience makes me special. And by “me” I meant all the unwashed masses of humanity.

But then I thought about it, and it just really didn’t make any sense. I mean, what makes me special is that I inhabit a subjective reality full of subjective experiences on which I alone confer meaning and of which I alone am aware and all of which will parish with me? That doesn’t sound significant. That sounds sad. It sounds like the essence of insignificance.

I realized that sentience does not equate to significance. Sentience is probably just an accident, a mistake; and, depending on what you do with it, maybe even a curse.

I like to run long distances. Sometimes, 10 or 15 or 20 miles into a run, I’ll remind myself to take in the nature around me, to appreciate the moment, to get my head out of the pain cave; and I can’t help but envy the squirrels, the trees, the birds, the spanish moss. They’re not in pain. They’re not pondering their place in the universe. They play their part in the grand scheme of things without even thinking about it. I can’t even jerk off without saying a couple hail marys.

Next time you’re pissed off at the world because you didn’t get the job interview or because Doritos discontinued your favorite flavor, peek through the dusty blinds of your apartment window. Look up at the stars. Ask yourself how your ability to reflect on your own existence makes you more important than any one of those dead stars. Ask yourself if it makes you more important than that unfathomably big, hot ball of gas we orbit. Ask yourself how you’re even a teeny tiny fraction as significant as this Class M clump of dirt you’re standing on that’s hosted uncounted life forms and that will out-exist them all.

Then go to sleep. And maybe you won’t wake up. And maybe that’s okay. Because maybe we’re wrong. Maybe we’re not the end result of evolution. Maybe we’re just its nascent beginnings. And maybe sentience isn’t what makes us better than everything else. Maybe it’s what cuts us off from everything else. And each individual grain of dust your current form will eventually dissolve into will surely last much much longer than you as a conscious being ever could have conceived.