Wednesday, June 06, 2012

On speciality

Or: I never thought you were special. I thought you should know.

Okay, so I wasn't there at the Wellesley High School graduation last weekend, but I would have loved to watch all the proud parents swallow their tongues as English teacher David McCullough told their brilliant progeny that they aren't special.
No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clich├ęs like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Now, the purpose of McCullough's address was not to poop on the dreams of these starry-eyed diplomates (although I think that might be funny, because I'm a bad person) but to inspire them to go out and do and try and seek, because specialness and accomplishment in their lives has not yet been achieved--yet. And because the way we're used to gaining that sense of specialness--trophies for participation, points for trying, parents browbeating our teachers (and, gah, employers) for better grades--isn't nearly as fulfilling as actually doing something and taking pride in what results of it.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. … The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. …

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

And although the speech is not, in actuality, about crushing the spirits of 18-year-olds as they step out into the world, I have to say that my favorite quote is one of perspective rather than encouragement.
And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.

Except for me, obviously.

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