Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unique, Not Special

A post over at Pop Chassid (a great blog if you haven't seen it) a short while ago got me thinking. Author Elad Nehorai was commenting about our generation's inability to really accomplish anything, how we're very proficient at complaining about how things should be, but not as successful in affecting change in our world. Overall, his post has many good points, and it's worthwhile to read it and consider some of them. However, there is one part of the post that I take issue with that I want to address, because I think it is intrinsically associated with the overall point of the blog post.

About midway through his essay, Elad references a blog post from another site that went viral some time ago; in it, author Tim Urban takes an incisive look at our generation (i.e. those born between the Seventies and the mid-Nineties) and attempts to parse out why we have so much baggage, why there seems to be so much overall dissatisfaction especially here in the United States, when paradoxically we're living in an age of convenience and freedom experienced by no other era in the history of mankind. Ultimately he attributes this malaise to the misbegotten notion that nearly every single child of this generation has been taught: namely, that we are all special. Urban spends a considerable amount of print (?) demonstrating how this focus on special-ness has fostered a sense of complacency and unrealistic expectations, a sense of entitlement that is wholly unfounded and leaves our youth unprepared for the real world.

Again, there is a lot of merit to that post, but my friend Elad takes umbrage with Urban's insistence that we are not all special, barring some sort of objective demonstration of that fact. Elad writes that "[d]espite what a dumb viral article said, we are special, and we can contribute something no one else can contribute."

The problem here is that by the time each respective blogger gets to his bottom line, so to speak, they are echoing each others' sentiments: both agree that the essential issue is the fact that hard work, serious effort, and consistency are key elements for one's achieving actualization, and that our generation is not readily inclined toward that expenditure. The only bone of contention here is a question of wording, what boils down to a matter of operational definitions. Elad's post insists that we are essentially special but we must bring that potential into reality; Urban posits that short of any tangible, quantifiable result that indicates that special-ness exists, we have no right brandishing the word special willy-nilly.

I agree with the essence of both blog posts. What I believe needs to be dealt with is this word special, and that it should be eliminated from the lexicon in this discussion. To me, special has a connotation of "better than"; when used as an adjective it speaks to those qualities that perhaps demonstrate superiority over others. Special is a word that should be reserved for special instances, as in when something merits the distinction that that specific word affords its bearer. Someone who is special deserves special treatment, can expect preferential advantages as a reward for their qualities and accomplishments.

 To say that everyone is special is inherently fallacious and not only robs the word special of its meaning but does a great disservice to everyone by placing the onus on them. After all, if everyone is special, then I too must be special. And if I turn out not to be special then what does that say about my value, my self worth? This obsession with special-ness undermines all the other important values that previous generations held, and I fear it is crippling our generation. Of course we'd rather complain about things than actually do anything about it, because nothing is ever big enough of an undertaking to tickle our fancy - we're waiting for the big, heroic events that reinforce our inflated self importance and fan the flames of our egocentricity.

But Elad does have a point. We do need to instill in our children a healthy sense of value; they need to see that they're capable of making a siginificant contribution to our world.

A better word for what Elad is speaking of? I would propose "unique" which has the connotation of individuality without the elevated status that "special" holds for the bearer. Each person's uniqueness captures the essence of what makes us valuable and powerful, as Elad puts it, because it acknowledges the value of individuality, the distinct element that every person can contribute to the world by exercising free will - without the expectation that we must outperform or somehow elevate ourselves over others to be recognized as worthy.

When we are cognizant of our ability while being aware of our limitations, we can ignore the unreasonable expectations that society bombards us with and we internalize - and get to work. By understanding that special status is something that is earned, we can rightfully attribute worth and value to true accomplishments, "big" or "small".

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