Monday, June 11, 2012

You're Not Special

So, some high school teacher gave a commencement speech that has been boiled down to one message: "You're not special."

I'll admit. I didn't take the time to watch the whole thing - or even read the transcript. Hey, we have a new baby; you're lucky to get a blog post at all this week.

Still, this speech seems to be generating some controversy (although I suspect this is due more to a slow news week than it is to people generally objecting to the content; I haven't found anyone who didn't see the redeeming value in this message).

Regardless, we do live in a culture where kids are babied and applauded by everyone for their entire lives. Parents do a lot for their kids and create an entitled atmosphere. We see it in college graduates who assume they should get paid big bucks to do whatever makes them happy to preschoolers who don't even know how to respond when some one tells them 'no.' I hear its even worse in China where most families live three or four generations together and have only one child.

This resonates with me - not because my parents were overly coddling (my brothers got much easier treatment than I did) - but because I've had this strange, deeply-held belief from a very early age, that there's something really amazing for me out there. For as long as I can remember I just assumed that I'd be the best at the world at something, I just had to find it.

This has led me to give up pursuits I might have enjoyed if I didn't take to them naturally or they required much work. It might have led to an inflated ego or a sense of entitlement. It's also led to some difficulty when I've proven to be less than the best at something I consider a talent.

We all want to be special and we all want to be rewarded; it's especially enjoyable to be rewarded simply for being who we are. You can't blame kids for embodying that idea. It's more the job of their parents, society, and the world around them to instill enough work ethic and humility to create realistic expectations.

We're not doing to well at that these days.

I've been thinking a bit about this - because the idea that we're valuable and entitled just for breathing is something that resonates with a gospel message. There is an inherent dignity in life; it's one of the reasons why we fight for the rights of even the most irresponsible, violent, nasty people. Being human means carrying some measure of God's image and identity; that alone is valuable.

The trick comes in understanding how that image shines through. For some people it just doesn't. We treat them with dignity because of our belief in universal human value, not because we always see a spark of the divine (although some saints are graced with seeing it in everyone).

Perhaps the message has become garbled. We've attached value and worth to our individual identity - no matter what that identity is. "Whoever you are is good enough." That's a fine starting point for addressing life, but you can't dwell there. A four year old should be celebrated for writing their name and not wetting their pants; you expect more when they're 18 or 35 or 50.

Internal and relational development should mature in the same way. Yes, you're special; you're wonderful and valuable and beautiful because of who you are. You unique qualities make you an individual and no one can be just like you. At the same time, your ability to grow and evolve and change is something that makes you special. You will be judged not on who you are, but on what you've done with who you are as you go through life.

From a Christian perspective, this means that one's own identity fades into the background and your life looks more like Christ. That the less you care about being special, the less you consider yourself special, the more special you become. Human beings were created to live in a specific way - every one of us has the capability to live up to that creative purpose (despite decided advantages and disadvantages we're born into). However, we're not able to find that created purpose within ourselves. We find it only within others and specifically as we model ourselves on the model human being: Jesus Christ.

I'm not sure the graduation speech was meant to be as deep or as monumental as all that. It seems like this teacher simply wanted these students to look outside themselves for something - understanding that this outward focus is the key to a real life. Its certainly a great start for self-discovery; hopefully my daughter won't have to wait until HS graduation to begin walking down that path.

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