As a student of rhetoric and an aspiring writer, I worry about words. I worry about the way they sound or don’t sound. I worry about nuance and assonance and consonance and rhythm. But mostly, I worry about the meanings (intentional or not) that we send with our words.
Currently, I’m serving as the first counselor in my ward Young Women’s organization. Which means, not surprisingly, that I spend a lot of time thinking about the messages that get sent to our youth, both inside and outside of the church.
One of the messages we send to our youth concerns their exceptionalism–the idea that they are, to borrow Peter’s words, “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood.” This message isn’t particularly new: I heard it 20 years ago. And there’s nothing implicitly wrong with the message–as a church, we believe that the current generation(s) were held back in the pre-existence to come to earth today.
What concerns me, however, is how this (and similar messages) may get taken up and misinterpreted. One of the difficulties with chosenness is that it only happens in opposition–one is only chosen if another is not. Exceptionalism works the same way. To be exceptional, one has to be an exception. One has to be better than others. (The Free Dictionary defines it as “well above average; extraordinary.”)
Don’t get me wrong. I love the youth I work with. They are smart, strong, vibrant young women full of integrity and faith. But exceptional? I find myself increasingly resisting that concept. The moral standards our youth (and adults) hold themselves to are exceptional. But I’m not sure it’s healthy to extrapolate from this that we ourselves are exceptional. I think it sets a dangerous precedence and expectation.
In her fascinating research on praise, Carol Dweck notes that sometimes well-meaning praise can backfire. Children who are praised for their intelligence, in well-meaning efforts by teachers to bolster their confidence and esteem, often find themselves buying into the idea that intelligence is a fixed trait: either you have it or you do not. Children who receive this kind of praise often shy away from real challenges: they fear that having difficulty executing a challenge reflects poorly on their ability and their intelligence.
In light of this research, I can’t help wondering–what does happen when you tell a young woman she’s exceptional? Does it bolster her confidence? Or does it lead her to shy away from real challenges, believing that a failure represents a sign that she is not, in fact, exceptional?
Does it set her up for disappointment later in life, to find that her life is more ordinary than exceptional?
This last question isn’t just idle speculation. For me, it’s personal. Growing up, I was told I was exceptional–not merely in spiritual terms, but in terms of other talents. I believed that this meant I was destined for great things–but somehow, I internalized a wordly definition of “greatness” along with a spiritual definition, and it has taken me a long time to disentangle the two (I’m still not sure I’m there). I’m only now coming to realize that my life is far more likely to be ordinary than exceptional–that I am far more ordinary than exceptional.
This realization is a good thing, but it hasn’t come without much soul searching and some pain (as humility always does).
Earlier this year I read Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Interestings, about a group of friends who meet as teens, full of promise and idealism for the future, and the inevitable frustration and transformation of many of their ambitions. The novel was difficult for me to read (I probably wouldn’t recommend it here), but the question she asks has stayed with me: is it possible to be contented with a life that doesn’t realize the promise you thought you had as a youth? One of her epigraphs is particularly wrenching: “. . . to own only a little talent . . . was an awful, plaguing thing . . . being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time.”
I think it *is* possible to find contentment in an ordinary life, but it means reframing our approach to exceptionalism. It means that instead of asking, “Am I chosen/ am I exceptional?” (a narcissistic framing that turns the spotlight on the individual at the expense of others), we ask: “what is my purpose?” and “what can I contribute?”
Recently I stumbled across a quote from Flannery O’Connor that I loved so much I printed it out and have hanging near my computer. Though O’Connor is talking about the art of writing rather than living, I think the idea applies here: “You do not write the best you can for the sake of art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit.”
In the same way, I think we don’t live and write and work and create for the recognition it might bring us, but for the use to which God can put us. I think we are meant to be not so much exceptional, as accessible, usable (by God), and ultimately perfectible.
What do you think? Have you struggled as an adult with frustrated expectations? What do you think about the idea of exceptionalism–is this a good or bad thing (or both) in your experience?