You Are Not Special

This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

You are not special.  You are not exceptional.

That is what high school teacher David McCullough, Jr. (son of the historian of the same name) told the Wellesley High graduating class of 2012. He continued:

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.  Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again.  You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored.  You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.  Yes, you have.  And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs.  Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet.  Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman!  And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.

The speech went viral and deservedly so. You can watch the whole speech below.

Now, consider the words of Harold B. Lee in the April 1972 General Conference:

This year is again a most important year of decision for our day. Some have even said that this is the most critical period in the history of this nation and of the world. I believe it is an illusion to say that this is the most critical, decisive time. 

That’s right: an illusion. To top it all off, this was in reference to the election year. Timely, especially since every U.S. election seems to be on the precipice of the Millennium in the American Mormon mind. But I think the illusion is broader than that. This goes to the heart of modern triumphalism and narcissism that gives rise to feelings of entitlement or ridiculous false doctrines like the youth today being generals in the war in heaven. Jesus’ apostles thought he was coming back in their lifetime. So did the early Mormons. And so do many today. This probably has less to do with religious devotion and more to do with–to borrow from McCullough–“our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality…” We have to be the special generation.

Yet, Lee then makes the most incredible point:

Write it upon the hearts of all of us that every dispensation has been just as decisive, and likewise that every year has been the most decisive year and time for ourselves, for this nation, and for the world. This is our day and time when honorable men must be brought forward to meet the tremendous challenges before us (bold mine).

Why is this?:

Today we are constantly hearing from the unenlightened and misguided, who demand what they call free agency, by which they apparently mean, as evidenced by their conduct, that they have their agency to do as they please or to exercise their own self-will to determine what is law and order, what is right and wrong, or what is honor and virtue. These are frightening expressions when you reflect upon what I have just quoted from the revealed word of God. A moment’s reflection will help you to see that when one sets himself up to make his own rules and presumes to know no law but his own, he is but echoing the plan of Satan, who sought to ascend to God’s throne, as it were, in being the judge of all that rules mankind and the world.1

Choices always have to be made. Morality always has to be shaped. And this comes through the nitty-gritty, the mundane, the everyday, the common. This comes through nurturing relationships and being present enough (i.e., not looking forward to the Millennium or looking back to compare post-Restoration generations to those of the supposed Dark Ages) to actually do something worthwhile. As McCullough explains,

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…Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life.  Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.

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.

1 thought on “You Are Not Special”

Comments are closed.