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.