Now that I am enjoying my summer vacation (it is as glorious as it sounds), I am finally getting caught up on reading the pile of Time magazines that have collected on my nightstand while I wrapped up the end of the school year. Last week, I read this article which referenced a commencement speech that went viral about two years ago. Seeing as how graduation season is upon us I felt like I could use a good commencement speech to usher me in the to pomp[ousness] and circumstance[s]. In his speech, David McCullough, a high school English teacher, shares some unpopular words of wisdom with a fortunate graduating class – “You are not special.”
There were plenty of statements made in this speech that I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Mr. McCullough on but his overarching thesis, if you will, resonates with my soul in ways that I wish it did and did not.
I am going to let you in on a secret…I have super powers. Or, at least I like to think that normal human limitations are not relevant or applicable to my life. In case you are wondering, I can’t fly and I don’t have an invisibility cloak but I nonetheless believe that I am not confined in the ways that others are. So, what is this super power I speak of – being special.
I was an only child till the prime age of 11. At the point my brother was born our vast age separation and our gender differences afforded us the opportunity to essentially both be raised as only children. As an only child it is pretty easy to become the center of attention – and I LOVED this. As I started school I quickly moved up in the ranks academically and socially and soon found myself receiving even more attention – which I continued to thrive on. I quickly discovered that the more accolades I received the more attention I got from those around me so I committed myself to a life of working hard and earning as many awards and having my name placed on as many rosters as possible. Considering my naturally extroverted personality this rarely felt burdensome to me and the praise I received was a constant source of fuel that kept me going.
As I excelled through school and prepared for “real life” I was constantly being fed lines like “You have so much potential”; “You are going to change the world”; “God has great plans in store for your life”; “I can’t wait to see where you go”; “In whatever you do, you will succeed”; and, of course, the infamous “You are special.” These words rooted themselves in my attention-addicted heart and settled there. I was convinced that God had made me special and unique, unlike any other person on this planet; able to carry out a one-of-a-kind mission that only I could do. The heart of all of the comments was encouragement and edification, but soon they became a weight around my neck that I wore daily. Since I am actually human and no one can really live up to these kinds of expectations, it was not long before shame and perceived failure began to dominate my perspective of myself.
Immediately upon finishing my Master’s Degree I had what I would have considered a dream job. Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears but it felt meaningful to me and made me feel significant at a time when I questioned that. Then, this job came to an end. I spent the next four and a half years bouncing in and out of more jobs than would be appropriate to list on a resume. With each new job, I expected to enter into this amazing zen utopia where my significance would be affirmed, everyone would see that I was indeed as special as people told me I was, I would be a part of changing the world, and my purpose in life would be fulfilled. A few accolades would be nice, too.
Things didn’t really work out that way. I quickly realized that any job is about 8% glory and 92% sweat equity. Most efforts go completely unseen and unacknowledged and trying to gain significance from work and accomplishments is exhausting. I wanted to invest my days in “sexy” work that I was passionate about. Instead, I spent a lot of time wallowing in my self-pity and coming to grips with the reality that I was not as special as everyone told me I was and that my life was not some glorious romance of passion and excitement. It was not quite the party I had prepared myself for. This reality check spiraled back into my life with every new endeavor, leaving behind a bit more disappointment and discouragement in its wake each time.
After reaching breaking point after breaking point I began to embrace the idea that maybe I had gotten this whole “I am special” thing a bit wrong. As it turns out, I am not the center of the universe, I am not a super hero, and I don’t have any special powers. While initially this was a lot to take in, it also released me from the weight and pressure I had been carrying around my entire life. I no longer needed to prove to everyone in my life that I was worthy of the words that had been spoken to me. I could finally live in the freedom of being human – with all of its frailty, imperfection, and weakness. The door was opened to fail which subsequently led to the ability to both receive and give grace – for others and myself.
Being special isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but the clincher is that our lives and what we do does matter. It just doesn’t matter in the ways I thought it did or in the ways we are raising the next generation to believe that it does. We are all unique in our humanity as bearers of the image of God. God created work and it is good. Sometimes we get to engage in the work that we are passionate about and sometimes work is a means to an end but God is active and present in both circumstances. We are significant because we belong to God. Sometimes we get accolades for the work we do and sometimes we don’t but that never changes our worth and value to Him. In Isaiah, God says to His people, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” That is some pretty sincere affection and it should affect the way we view ourselves, our work, and those around us. Even more, it should affect the way we view and respond to God – the God who has chosen us to be His and continually chooses to see, hear and speak to us.
In conclusion, I leave you with my own commencement exhortation inspired by the wisdom of King Solomon: As you enter into the next moment of your life, wherever you may be and whatever you may be doing, I hope you realize that you are not special but who you are and what you do matters. There is no better person to be than yourself but know that you will always be on a journey discovering who you are. Wake up everyday and do the tasks that lie before you. Give everything you have to give. Sometimes you will have more to give than at others. Receive grace in those times when you have less to offer and when you fail. Remember those moments so that you have grace to share with others when you experience their weakness and failure. Seek out shalom with God, within yourself and with others. Cultivate love and gratitude. Do something you enjoy just for the sake of delighting in it. You may be tempted to think that a good life is one that only experiences pain in limited doses but I assure you that the greatest beauty will come from the deepest places of brokenness you encounter. Hope fervently. Courageously embrace the freedom to live in the fullness of your humanity – the grit and the glory of it.
Godspeed to you as you walk out the life you probably didn’t plan for.