On wanting to be special

We want to be great and we want our lives to be special.

On wanting to be special
Photo by Ali Kazal / Unsplash

Last summer, I fell into conversation with a clinical psychologist who worked with university students.

"What's the biggest issue you see with students," I asked? "What do you see most often? What's the biggest problem?"

"Grandiosity," she said immediately. "Grandiosity."


"Everyone wants to be great," she said. "They all feel they have to do something great with their lives, something special. All their ambitions are grandiose."

I could relate. I've had grand ambitions for as long as I can remember. In chronological order, I've wanted to be: 1) CEO of Coke (I read a book about them when I was little), 2) a billionaire, 3) the creator of a city-state like Athens (I wrote a constitution), 4) the new P. G. Wodehouse, 5) Prime Minister of India, 6) the new Leo Tolstoy, 7) an enlightened saint, and 8) a world-historical philosopher.

It's not just our life-ambitions that can be grandiose. Much more insidiously, I think we (by which I really mean "me + extrapolation") often have grandiose ambitions on an ordinary, daily level.

We want great experiences. We want our holidays to be brilliant. We want the food we eat to be incredible. We want to look amazing, we want to feel amazing, we want to be amazing.

"They get really stressed," she said, "because of this need for everything to be special. And many of them are basically depressed because it isn't."

I nodded, sold her a dosa, and went on with my day.

In 1954, the great English poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to welcome his best friend's daughter into the world. He wished her, he wrote, 'something none of the others would':

'May you be ordinary,' said Larkin.

May you be ordinary ... that is an unusual thing to wish anyone. To call someone ordinary is normally to insult them; to call an experience, a thought, a feeling ordinary is normally to criticise or minimise it.

To be ordinary is to be average. And in the linguistic cultures I know, to be "average" is to be bad, is to deserve condemnation and blame. That meal was average, that book's average, that film / song / performance / whatever is average - all of this is a negative judgment. This is the first time I've noticed this and now that I've noticed it I find very strange. I find it almost incomprehensible, in fact.

Our lives, our daily lives, our experiences - they are, on average, average.

I'm drinking a cup of coffee as I write this. It's alright. It's not terrible. It's not great. It's just alright.

Yesterday, I went with my sister, my brother-in-law, and their son to visit her in-laws. We ate breakfast together. We sat around in the living room. People chatted, people were on phones. I napped for a bit. We ate lunch. We left. It was a perfectly ordinary experience. Completely, unrelentingly, average.  

Now, I don't know if you've noticed, but the world is full of people who want to tell you how you should think, act, and feel. Philosophers, psychologists, economists, management consultants, motivational speakers, gurus, priests, bullshit artists, experts of any kind, your boss - they all do this and they do it all the time.

I'm often going write things that seem like they go in that direction. Right now, for example, one obvious way to conclude would be to give you a practical prescription, a command. For example, I could say a little bit more about the stress caused by chasing specialness, and then I could conclude with the practical takeaway / command: Don't try to chase special experiences!

But I'm not going to do that. I hate telling people what they should do or think or feel or be. Moreover, it's not like I've cracked the code or won the game. I don't know how life works in general and I certainly don't know how your life works or what your particular experience and history is.

The thing is, I'm not writing from any kind of pedestal. I'm writing from where I live, which is a place of uncertainty and struggle, of not-knowing, a place of searching, a place where sometimes I receive flashes of insight that at other times I doubt.

Maybe this is a good way of putting it: I'm writing as a fellow-traveller, not as someone who has reached the destination. I'm where you are, standing in the woods, staring at the paths, making steps in one direction, then another, wondering where it all leads, wondering whether any of it leads anywhere.

So I'm not telling you to stop chasing specialness and I'm not telling you to start chasing it. There is no neat practical takeaway. Instead, I'm offering you observations, stories, ideas - sometimes, one might resonate with you, and it'll enter you, and you'll transform it and it will transform you, and it will become a living thing with practical force.

And once it lives, it might even change your life. But that won't be because I've told you something. It will be because you have created something for yourself.

It's in that spirit that I write: provisionally, experimentally, in community.

The single most extraordinary thing I have ever experienced is being present at the birth of my child.

I am reliably informed that this event - childbirth - has happened at least 8 billion times.

There is nothing more ordinary than childbirth.

There is nothing more extraordinary than childbirth.

Perhaps both those sentences are true.

Does anything follow? I'm not sure. But it's worth wondering: does chasing special things make us neglect the ordinary? And does neglecting the ordinary make us neglect something important?

I don't know. I'll end with something from Martin Buber, an incredibly wise man who knew a lot about life and the world:

I have given up the “religious” which is nothing but the exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy; or it has given me up. I possess nothing but the everyday out of which I am never taken.