“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that is broken, the crownless again shall be king.” ~ by JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Life is one continuous lesson.
One of the blessings of turning 70 is I’ve had time to reflect on the lessons learned through my burned hands. I’d like to share an important one.
My real schooling began after college when I moved to Chicago and life went to school on me. It was 1971 and my mind was set on conquering the world. I had bought in — lock, stock and barrel — to the doctrine of exceptionality. I believed I was
- born into a exceptional country,
- member of an exceptional family, and
- beneficiary of an exceptional education.
Nothing, I mean nothing, could stop me from seizing my exceptional destiny. The fact I wanted to do good things in the world and for the world was secondary to my desire to be somebody exceptional.
But reality intervened and taught me I wasn’t so exceptional. Indeed, I discovered I was surrounded by people of equal or greater talent than I. The best I could say for myself was that I might be exceptionally average.
After 15 years of searching for my exceptionality I returned to Seattle, humbled and at a loss to explain what had happened. The verdict: in comparison to others I was
- no more exceptional,
- no more blessed,
- no more talented.
This revelation had been too much for my fragile psyche. I had turned to alcohol to dull my thoughts, numb my emotions and nurse my resentments, all the while shaking my fist at God over the unfairness of it all.
My pity party lasted just long enough for me to tire of it. Finally I hit bottom, climbed out of my hole, and found recovery. I used the fourth step inventory to review my life, and what a revelation it was. I saw I’d always been an average guy, excelling in a few things, not so great at others, and about even in the rest.
My resentments were aimed in the wrong direction; I was the author of my misery. It was I who had embraced this doctrine of exceptionality and finally had to admit there was little that separated me from any other person. We all had to drink from the same watering hole of life. Many a weary traveler in search of of exceptionality believes they’ll find it on the mountain top. Mountain tops are lonely places, jealously guarded, with steep, sometimes deadly descents.
My experience taught me that it is on the valley floor where one finds the exceptional: everyday people doing everyday kinds of things. It’s in the exceptionally average that one sees the face of God.
The psychologist Carl Rogers captures it this way:
What is most personal is most general. There have been times when in talking with students or staff, or in my writing, I have expressed myself in ways so personal that I have felt I was expressing an attitude which it was probable no one else could understand, because it was so uniquely my own….
In these instances I have almost invariably found that the very feeling which has seemed to me most private, most personal, and hence most incomprehensible by others, has turned out to be an expression for which there is a resonance in many other people.
It has led me to believe that what is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.
Exceptionalism is found not in how I distinguish myself from another but in how I find common ground. When we free ourselves from the loneliness of our terminal uniqueness we find rich fellowship within the exceptionally average.
Just a thought…
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