In Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You the protagonist, James Sveck, must go through the obligatory adolescent journey of realizing and accepting his identity. Along with being what our grandmothers would describe as an “old soul,” James is incredibly intelligent. He is also miserable. James’ depression stems from his notion that he is different from other people his age. He states:
I remember at one point (genuinely) wondering if I was, perhaps, genetically altered in some way, some tiny modification of DNA that separated me from the species in some slight but essential way, the way mules can mate with donkeys but not with horses (I think). It seemed that everyone else could mate, could fit their parts together in pleasant and productive ways, but that some almost indistinguishable difference in my anatomy and psyche set me slightly, yet irrevocably, apart.
Some could say that James feels disconnected because he has not fully come to terms with his sexual identity as a gay man. However, James’ inner monologue captures what we have all probably felt at some point during adolescence, something that extends beyond sexuality. James feels like he is in some way fundamentally different from everyone else his age. This understanding and introspection make James feel separate. James does not seem to consider that other people his age may feel this way as well. Could it be that the other kids James observes act the way they do to fit in with one another, while they at the same time feel different? James’ isolation derives from the fact that he does not want to act like the other people his age, nor does he have the social skills to do so. This inability is what makes James believe that he is in some way essentially and biologically unlike his peers. James’ struggle with feeling different and therefore alone is one of the most basic difficulties and rites of passage in adolescence.
In the 8th grade I had a biology teacher I absolutely despised. He was snarky, annoying, an unfair grader, and just genuinely strange. We did not get along. I also loathed the sciences, which may have swayed my opinion of this man (but he was also a nasty little person). I cannot say that there are many points from my 8th grade biology class that I can recall. The one thing I do remember well is how every day at the beginning and end of class the teacher would say, “Variation, variation, variation. That is all that matters.” Having hated this teacher and the subject he taught I did not really think much of this saying. That is, I did not think of it until high school when I finally understood (at least to some extent) what this teacher was talking about. He was saying that differences and individuality should be valued above all else. In high school I often felt like James in that I believed I was fundamentally different from everyone else (what a cliché…the misunderstood teenager). The sense of feeling different in turn made me feel alone and isolated, much like James. Though it did not necessarily make the pain of the solitude any lesser, I thought about what my biology teacher said, “Variation, variation, variation.” Any time I feel myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it just be so much easier if I were like everyone else?” I think of what my teacher said. We are supposed to be unique. We have to value what makes us who we are, and not what makes us like everyone else. I still hate that teacher. But I thank him for the lesson, even if I don’t actually apply it to biology.