You Are Not Special: A Defense Of Normality

     The early-morning hours often bring me to a strange place. It’s not a particularly comfortable place. Yet from that vantage point I can see things that are not apparent at other times, when time itself seems speeded up and a welter of necessities press. And being who and what I am, I’m moved to write about them.


     Among the besetting tragedies of our time is the belief, promulgated to legions of children by their well-meaning parents, that you are special. With vanishingly few exceptions, it is not so. Indeed, it has never been so, and will never be so. One who learns and accepts what the word special actually means can thresh that out for himself. It would be well if he were to do so before he’s old enough to vote, but a great many young persons do not – and therein lies the tragedy.

     Each of us is unique, but few of us are special.

     To be special is to be a standout: one who greatly exceeds the human norm in some way, and who therefore gets a lot of attention. The desire to be special equates to a desire to get that degree of attention from others. It’s a common desire. But the great majority of us simply don’t qualify.

     Fortunately for our race, general competence at living is widespread. You don’t need to be special to achieve a worthy, comfortable life, at least in a First World nation. Yes, you’ll have to work. That work could be irritating, or strenuous, or boring, depending on what you choose for your trade. But once again with few exceptions, you’ll be good enough at it to pay your bills, usually with a modest margin for savings.

     The Special do much more than that. Their deeds have wide and deep impacts. The attention they get underscores their contrast with us Normals. And a great many of us are consumed by envy of them. That envy can get in the way of achieving a worthy, comfortable life.


     It’s common for young people who are “locally special” – i.e., the best at something within a limited community – to experience great chagrin once they go out into the wider world. Suddenly they’re surrounded by other “locally specials,” and in that company their distinction ceases to distinguish them. The discovery can be devastating. In its throes, the young person aching from the loss of his “specialness” can slip into all sorts of pathologies. Some can last lifelong.

     The desire to be special doesn’t have to be crippling to those who haven’t got a world-beater gift. There are several kinds of “locally special” status available to any decent man. Being a beloved spouse or parent is one; being a “go-to guy” in your occupation, valued for your promptness, thoroughness, and reliability, is another; being a greatly trusted friend is still another. These limited forms of specialness are what make human life endurable for the great majority of men.

     Does this all seem too obvious, Gentle Reader? If so, I shan’t be offended if you choose to surf away. As I said, these early-morning hours find me in some very strange states of mind, where much that eludes me at other times of day becomes clear. But if it’s really all that obvious, why are so many people who have worthy, comfortable lives within their grasp so bloody miserable?


     It seems time for a quote:

     The world of reality has limits; the world of imagination is boundless. Not being able to enlarge the one, let us contract the other; for it is from their differences that the evils arise which render us unhappy. – Jean Jacques Rousseau

     Rousseau, not an admirable figure in his own right, nevertheless said some wise things. The above is one of them. The man who learns to constrain his desires such that they fit within his means has the very best chance of achieving enduring happiness. Here, means should not be interpreted in the narrow economic sense. It should be taken to include one’s complete package of abilities and limitations.

     Aspirations of any sort are always conditional. “I want to be an astronaut!” “I want to be a pro baseball player!” “I want to be a great inventor!” These are all very well, provided we suffix each of them with “…if I can.” For of that, there are no guarantees.


     Just as we cannot guarantee an ascent to big-time specialness, neither can we guarantee that every moment of our lives will be brilliantly illuminated, vibrantly special. Even the truly Special know a great deal of ordinariness, days of humdrum, drudgery, and tiring effort. Thomas Edison captured it perfectly in his epigram: “Genius is two percent inspiration and ninety-eight percent perspiration.” On another occasion, he said that “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” He would surely know.

     One of my favorite movies, A Thousand Clowns, has something piercing to say about “ordinary life.” Central character Murray Burns has rebelled against the working world. Its ordinariness repelled him; he has adopted deliberate unemployment and its limitations in a quest to make every day special:

     “I was sitting in the express looking out the window same as every morning watching the local stops go by in the dark with an empty head and my arms folded, not feeling great and not feeling rotten, just not feeling, and for a minute I couldn’t remember, I didn’t know, unless I really concentrated, whether it was a Tuesday or a Thursday… or a … for a minute it could have been any day, Arnie… sitting in the train going through any day… in the dark through any year… Arnie, it scared the hell out of me.”…

     “I gotta know what day it is. I gotta know what’s the name of the game and what the rules are without anyone else telling me. You gotta own your own days and name ’em, each one of ’em, every one of ’em, or else the years go right by and none of them belong to you. And that ain’t just for weekends, kiddo.”

     In a brilliant climactic scene, Murray confronts his conventionally successful brother Arnold, who works in a high-rise office as an advertising executive. Murray is facing the possible loss of his young nephew Nick to the “Social Services,” and is struggling with whether he can return to the existence he fled. Arnold exemplifies what he shuns and as such is a curiously dualistic character whom Murray loves yet often strives to reject. Yet Arnold knows something Murray does not – and he expresses it in one of the best short soliloquies in all of cinema:

     “I have a wife and I have children, and business, like they say, is business. I am not an exceptional man, so it is possible for me to stay with things the way they are. I’m lucky. I’m gifted. I have a talent for surrender. I’m at peace. But you are cursed; and I like you so it makes me sad, you don’t have the gift; and I see the torture of it. All I can do is worry for you. But I will not worry for myself; you cannot convince me that I am one of the Bad Guys. I get up, I go, I lie a little, I peddle a little, I watch the rules, I talk the talk. We fellas have those offices high up there so we can catch the wind and go with it, however it blows. But, and I will not apologize for it, I take pride; I am the best possible Arnold Burns.”

     Arnold has unwittingly undervalued himself, for his is clearly a worthy life. He’s valued greatly by those around him, including rebellious Murray. Without him, Murray would flounder indefinitely, and eventually would sink into despair. By elucidating what he has called “a talent for surrender,” he’s brought home the reality of life to his willful brother: You can’t have everything exactly as you want it at all times. This is particularly the case if you want things that others must provide you.


     So there it is: you are not special, and that’s quite all right. (Apologies to any of the genuinely Special who might be reading this.) Rare is the man who is so far above the norms that he can have everything exactly as he wants it: wealth, fame, the love and companionship of the beautiful, the adulation of millions, what have you. The Special get a lot of popular attention; indeed, in the usual case they get a lot more than they actually want. That’s the downside of their estate. For my part, I’m inexpressibly glad that I’m not one of them.

     Normality is not a curse. Be not consumed by envy of others who seem to have what you do not, for they too have their crosses to bear. Glory in your normal, worthy, comfortable life. And do have a nice day.


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    • Evil Franklin on June 12, 2023 at 7:36 AM

    As Clint Eastwood’s character, Harry, said in Magnum Force, “You have to know your limitations.”

    Even the “Special” have their limitations.

    Evil Franklin

  1. You remind me of the immense value I have gained by taking the last commandment as a serious bit of advice to live by.

    • Max Wiley on June 12, 2023 at 8:48 AM

    I am reminded of the calendar that always hung on the back door of the house, through the kitchen, when I was growing up. Every year the calendar was updated but it had the same message: the Prayer of Serenity.

    “Lord: Grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,  and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    As I got older and matured mentally and philosophically, I came to understand that this was the secret of life.  The Rousseau quote simply restates the same concept in a different way.

    • SiG on June 12, 2023 at 9:38 AM

    Something you didn’t address, but I probably rant excessively about, is that the endless repetition of “you are special” gets us into the morass we’re currently in.


    The root is “I’m so special that regular rules don’t apply to me.”  The “two genders” rule of biology doesn’t apply to me.  Regular English pronouns don’t apply to me.   I’m particularly offended by that second one because it forces other people, innocent bystanders as it were, to change their behavior to acknowledge the other’s special-ness.  Third person is just that.  No one refers to themselves in the third person (except for psychotics or royalty), it’s the way two people in conversation include a third person – as the name implies.  You, me and him (or her).


    Next thing you know, we’re forced to say “men can have babies” as demonstrated on a magazine cover by a woman who claims to be a trans-man but retained her reproductive organs and is pregnant.  It’s not called psychosis or circus-sideshow freak because of how special she thinks she is.


    As for the real points of what you were saying, I was fortunate enough to work myself into some very unique positions.  I designed “important” radios for one of the biggest and historically best radio companies in the world.  And I always told myself that if I could do it, anyone could do it.


    1. All excellent observations, but I was aware that I’d gotten rather windy, so I closed without addressing them. Perhaps your comment will suffice as a supplement.

  2. This is a post that deserves to be shared widely.

    • Georgiaboy61 on June 14, 2023 at 11:45 AM

    @ Francis P.

    Re: “You Are Not Special: A Defense of Normality”

    Thank you for the wise words. More should read and heed them. Especially the part about “special” versus “unique,” a distinction which seems to be lost upon our current society. Which, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, is one in which “everyone is above average.”

    I’m a historian, and learned of the basic anonymity and obscurity of humans through a somewhat different route. Namely,  that even the geniuses and titans of history – in music, science, whatever field – no matter how stupendous their achievements, generally are forgotten within a few generations time of their deaths.

    The statutes of military heroes in the park, with no one paying them any mind, except save the birds looking for a place to roost. What sort of pageantry accompanied the dedication of the artist’s hard work in making it, one wonders? What an ignoble end for such a fine work of art. But that’s the nature of the thing: All glory is fleeting.

    They come from obscurity and to obscurity they return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

    Of course, there are exceptions, people whose names live down through history – but they are as rare as the truly special are rare. And too often in history, “special” does not mean good or worthwhile, but their opposites. Genocidal tyrants such as Mao and Stalin, and their kind.

    Against the vastness of eternity, we humans are insignificant, our lives a tiny blip upon the vast stretch of the eons. But this is not necessarily a cause for despair, for the great philosophical and religious traditions make clear to us that to God, each of us is significant and important. If you believe in that sort of thing. And if our families and friends find significance in our lives and works, then that is no small thing.

    In today’s narcissistic and self-centered culture, how often it is tempting to exclaim to such people “Get over yourself! You just aren’t that special! No one cares!” But of course, you don’t say it… and anyway, they’ll find out soon enough for themselves the truth of the matter.

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