Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

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?

 

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

22 thoughts on “Taking Exception to Exceptionalism

  1. I believe the notion started with a speech by Ezra Taft Benson as an apostle in 1979 at BYU when he said:
    “For nearly six thousand years, God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the Second Coming of the Lord. Every previous gospel dispensation has drifted into apostasy, but ours will not. True, there will be some individuals who will fall away; but the kingdom of God will remain intact to welcome the return of its head—even Jesus Christ. While our generation will be comparable in wickedness to the days of Noah, when the Lord cleansed the earth by flood, there is a major difference this time. It is that God has saved for the final inning some of his strongest children, who will help bear off the Kingdom triumphantly. And that is where you come in, for you are the generation that must be prepared to meet your God.”

    If you read it carefully the message isn’t that this generation is exceptional, it’s that God believes it has the strength to do what needs to be done to serve well in the Kingdom of God even in the face of severe wickedness and that He knows this generation and will be with this generation as it does that work and prepares to meet God.

    That has gotten morphed into “exceptional” or “special” in youth-leader speak. But Benson didn’t mean exceptional as in more amazing than other members of the generation on earth, he said the whole generation, including you, is known by God and may be empowered to do what needs to be done, in spite of the wickedness of previous generations. (note how he refers to “our generation” (his) and your generation (yours))

    Knowing that you are known and empowered to do good is the message. Which is a healthier idea.

  2. I heard similar comments as I grew up, but they were often tempered. Yes, we were “a chosen generation,” but chosen for what? Chosen to serve. Chosen to follow the teachings of our Savior. Chosen to work to bring about the growth of the kingdom. Chosen to love our brothers and sisters throughout the world, especially those who didn’t yet know of our spiritual kinship. Chosen by choosing Whom we follow day by day.

    As far as being “exceptional,” I saw (and see) that more as a mandate than an entitlement. We are to do good works, influencing those around us in “exceptional” ways. That includes broad, public actions that bring about righteous change in others’ behalf, but it also encompasses the quiet, silent acts unseen by most: teaching little ones to say their prayers, making monthly contact with visiting teaching sisters, taking an imperfect backyard blossom to an elderly neighbor.

    Sometimes exceptional, chosen qualities emerge in the smallest, simplest things.

  3. @MB–yes! Thank you for including the quote (I tried to find it and ran out of time). I’m not by any means trying to criticize the prophet(!) Only to say that I’m sometimes disturbed by the direction that this message has been taken. I agree–being empowered to do good is much healthier than believing you are somehow special or exceptional. The reality is, we all have worth, which means by definition no one is “special” if we take that to mean somehow more valuable than others.

  4. Teresa, I like this idea of distinguishing between exceptional acts and an innate exceptionalism. The latter, I think, gives credit to our agency and emphasizes what I’m more interested anyway: asking what we can contribute, rather than what we’re worth.

  5. One problem with this rhetoric that I’ve come up against as a mother of teenagers who live in an area with very few Mormons is that my kids know LOTS of really exceptional non-Mormon kids. And by exceptional I just don’t mean smart and talented, but good and kind and hard working. When the message of exceptionalism is coupled with the equally problematic references to “the world” as being beneath us–especially when “the world” is wrongly presented as everyone who isn’t a Mormon–they are jarred and disconcerted by the contradiction between what they’re being told at church and what they experience in their everyday lives. Are there some truly awesome Mormon kids who are made even awesomer by the knowledge, discipline, service, and access to spiritual things that they possess? Definitely. But when kids hear that they’re automatically “exceptional” by virtue of being a Mormon, there are many who see how far they have to go–sometimes in comparison to their non-Mormon friends–and feel confused and less-than rather than empowered.

    1. My 16 year old daughter is extremely bothered by the anti “the world” teachings at church. She knows some really great people who are not members of the church. Right now she identifies more strongly with them than with people at church and so her loyalty to the church is at a low point.
      I don’t know when “the world” came to represent Satan, but the world is a diverse place and condemning the whole world just because some people murder or some governments go to war or some people are immoral is strange and feels wrong to my daughter.

  6. Wonderful essay, and I have had the same thoughts. It was difficult transition to BYU for that reason – seeing how very ordinary I was/am!
    I love your last line – so true. I want to be accessible, usable and perfectible.
    Thank you!

  7. Very thought provoking post! Another risk of (over) praising is bringing on a sense of entitlement. I know my transition from youth to adulthood was a little bit bumpy because I went from being praised for EVERYTHING to being expected to suck it up and put my shoulder to the wheel. I think it is important that youth be given a sense of their worth and who they are but growing up too much the feeling was that it was OUR generation only. I have heard adults in the church say how much better their children are than their parents or grandparents simply by virtue of being born later. This is a very dangerous message to send and receive. At the same time, a very ordinary person can be truly exceptional simply by keeping the commandments when everyone else around them is not.

  8. I have a teenage daughter who is exceptional. When she was younger we had her IQ tested and she is in the top 2%. This explained a lot of her personality traits (the reason we had her tested) and made us more understanding of her quirks.

    We have since had to spend a lot of time going over what her high IQ means. Yes she is Gifted and Talented but what does that mean. She is “gifted” with some amazing IQ abilities – but to be “Talented” in these areas she has to work hard and not fly under the radar. Just because she is gifted does not mean anything if she is not putting in her hard work to make it a talent. We have also pointed out that her piano playing that she loves and works really hard at – is not a “Gift” but something she got through a lot of hard work (she is not naturally talented in piano playing).

    We have had to point out a lot that being “smart” is not as important as being “nice”. We have had to point out that being “smarter” than other people does not make her “better” than other people. We have had to work on her career choices – just because she is smart enough to be a lawyer doesn’t mean she has to be – if she would rather be an artist go for it.

    I know you talking about exceptional knowledge with your writing today – but I feel we need to approach our youth in the same fashion. Yes you are a chosen a generation – but you have to choose to be that. You have to work hard and serve. Chosen does not mean only those in the church but those outside as well – the church is not the only place to have chosen people.

    Telling them they are exceptional/chosen is good – as long as we point out the responsibilities that come with that being a chosen generation. And make them realize that the only way to really meat their potential is through and with Jesus Christ.

  9. I really appreciate all the comments!

    @Angela–exactly. I think one danger of the idea of “exceptionalism” is that it does prioritize membership over other attributes (sometimes including simply being Christlike). And at its root, exceptionalism is exclusive, which I (obviously) find problematic.

    @Kimberly–thank you! I think acknowledging being “ordinary” can be difficult–but I think it’s also an important step in being able to celebrate the abundant diversity of talents and abilities in others. And to be fair, I’m still working on it!

    @Ana–yes. While we do have innate worth simply because of who we are (God’s children), it’s also important that we recognize discipleship means *work.* And it’s so very hard to go from abundant recognition to nothing (especially for women who choose to stay home with kids, where recognition is even scarcer).

    @Elissa–I agree that it’s helpful to help kids recognize their talents. But as you point out, it’s more valuable to praise them for effort than for an innate talent/ability. And it’s so important that they recognize having exceptional ability does *not* make them better than others. (This is something we’re struggling with now with my 8 yo son, who is well above most of his peers in reading and math).

  10. When I was much younger I was asked to read a quote about being a “chosen” generation. Notably, the quote, as I recall, was given when my mother was still in infancy. (Alas, I cannot find it as I do not recall which manual we were studying that year nor do the church archives extend that far back.) That neatly solved any notion I may have harbored that /my/ particular age group was any more special than my grandmother’s group.

  11. I would recommend you read Amy Chua’s and Jared Rubenfeld’s book “The Tripple Package”. In it they argue, quite persuasively, that exceptionalism is a necessary cultural characteristic to produce successful adults from children. They highlight Mormons as one of the cultures in the US that produces a disproportionate number of high achievers. The overbearing mother/father/pastor highlighting the child’s failures while simultaneously emphasizing that the child is a member of a chosen people tends to motivate offspring to achieve higher than they otherwise would.

  12. Rosalyn, anyone who references Carol Dweck gets points in my book. :) I find her research fascinating.

    In the last year I made a move from one job, where I worked in a small office and felt very competent at my work, to another job, where I work in a much bigger office and not only am I not the office expert, several of my coworkers are nationally recognized in our field. It’s been an . . . interesting change, to say the least, and it’s definitely been a good change, overall, but I do occasionally find myself musing about the difference in how I view myself in this new “pond.”

  13. I’ve had some of the same thoughts. (Guess I’m unexceptional in that, haha!) I tested with a very high IQ, and that produced a brittleness, a feeling of being an imposter–I couldn’t ever let my parents down, and what if they find out I’m not always the smartest kid in the room?. When I didn’t become the astronaut/ballerina/novelist published at 17 that I felt was expected of me, I felt like my life was over. It was tragic at the time. (thankfully, now it’s just humorously bathotic :) )

    I think a lot of people who say that kind of thing come from a different place culturally and emotionally, where HEARING that one is exceptional is necessarily tempered by some kind of pragmitism or work ethic or whathaveyou. Or maybe they’re just emotionally more direct. Either way, the Chosen Generation thing didn’t help me as it might have, and I don’t want to visit it upon my kids or the teens I teach Sunday School to.

    Remember in the Matrix, when the Oracle defends having lied to Neo (honestly, I’m not usually a Matrix quoter, forgive me) because telling someone about their path and helping to set them on their path are two different things?

    I am not a fan of directly telling people, “You’re spiritually lazy and corrupt and need to repent!” I think I am also ambivalent about telling them they’re a chosen generation. Not because it isn’t true, but because it might not be helpful. In both cases–chastisement and encouragement–I find the most powerful thing I can offer is my love and acceptance. Then the Spirit takes over and teaches the individual what they need to know, when, and how. We really overthink the scripts we are supposed to use with the youth in the church, I think. They need to be loved. The Spirit seriously knows exactly what needs to be done. The love will help the kids get out of their own way, maybe.

  14. And now I have to tell you about this dream I had, Rosalyn.

    I dreamt I was a young, aspiring troubadour, enthralled with the power of music and sure of the beauty I had to share. I desired greatly an increase in my talents and confidently offered them all to God, consecrating my performances and compositions to Him, knowing he would grant me increase.

    Then in the dream I fast-forwarded 15 years. I was still a troubadour, but a bitter, unhappy one. My talents had increased, but only enough that I was able to really begin to recognize and appreciate what true musical genius was, and to understand that I didn’t have it. Worse, I was given a keen ability to sense buds of genius in others.

    I wanted to be released from my covenant with God to perform, because I didn’t feel my music was nearly enough to be worthy offerings.

    But God was holding me to my agreement, as I kept moving faster from town to town, doing my wretched second-rate performances and moving on quickly so that I wouldn’t be recognized. As it turned out, it was my faithfulness He valued. He didn’t care so much about my musical ability. All he wanted was for me to keep my agreement with him that I’d continually perform music consecrated to Him.

    The dream left off there before it had a nicer ending. Maybe a more talented dreamer would have managed a better denoument, sigh.

    But now that I’ve had a couple years to reflect on it, I’m glad for it. It’s a release. I’m free to be mediocre, so long as I’m faithful.

    Besides which–and I am not sure how to say this inoffensively, so, well, here we go–have you noticed that sometimes mediocre talent is perfect for getting things done? Like, success is easier with someone not talented enough to see how they’re failing, or could possibly fail?

    I want to embrace mediocrity, because embracing genius is the most petrifying thing I do as a writer. Similarly, I wonder if pushing exceptionalism to Church teens has the effect of deepening shame and reducing the likelihood of teens seeking help with repentance.

    Anyway, thanks for permitting this tiny mediocre novella in your blogging corner. Wonderful post, Rosalyn!

  15. The older I get the more I just want to survive this crazy choice I made to come to earth with a shred of dignity. THAT being said, I do believe there’s something terribly—no sorry, wonderfully unique about the children just now coming into the world. It’s like they’re born knowing things I will never know. I don’t think they’re necessarily more exalted already but they sure as heck have been sent here better prepared. Little kids—especially toddlers–just amaze me. Maybe I’m just an old lady. Also I have a two year old grandson who seems pretty chosen to me. :)

  16. @Janell–I imagine every generation has their own purpose to fulfill, which is a good thing!

    @Paul–I’ve of course heard of Chua’s newest book, though I haven’t had a chance to pick it up. However, saying that the exceptionalist mindset produces “successful” people doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s healthy for all young people to hear. :)

    @Katya–it’s always difficult to find our perceptions of ourselves changing, isn’t it?

    @Sachiko–thank you so much for sharing your dream. I found it powerfully moving. (And in fact, I think you should consider submitting a guest post for us on “embracing mediocrity”–I’d love to hear more!)

    @anneb–I think grandmothers are excempt from all of this. They *should* think their grandchildren are exceptional. :)

  17. But check out all the toddlers in the waiting room (whichever) surfing the web on their ipads and iphones. I think they’re born knowing how to to do this.

  18. As usual, Rosalyn, you have eloquently expressed something that many of us have been thinking about. I, too, have often had to reevaluate my own “ordinariness” in the face of huge expectations of greatness. Sometimes being ordinary and fairly anonymous is comforting and comfortable; sometimes it is heart-breaking and disappointing. I think your thoughts here also coincide with my own attempts to reconcile a life that is very different than one’s imagined expectations. My own life looks very, very different than my fantasy expectations of what it would look like. The loss of those dreams are very real to me and I am still working on how best to life with that with optimism and hope.
    In an larger sense, I agree that we need to be careful about teaching ‘exceptionalism’ to our youth so as to not encourage either superior attitudes on the one hand or set them up for disappointment if their lives follow ‘ordinary’ paths on the other hand. In the end, I think your conclusion is perfect: it is being useful to the Lord and faithful that matters to Him more than being exceptional. (Is that kind of dedication ‘exceptional’ in its own way? Perhaps what we need is a more nuanced definition of the word?) In any case, thank you for your rich and thoughtful insights.

  19. Thank you for putting words to some of my thoughts. Teresa I see exceptional opportunities as a mandate to jump in and get going. I am a daughter of an exceptional mother, an impossible act to follow! She was paralyzed from the neck down as an infant and was expected to die, but against all odds regained most of the use of her arms and hands…and she put them into good use. She went on to learn seven languages, worked seven days a week for her government and later for the Church with plate sized blisters bleeding and causing pain. She married , had me, she sang, she painted, she wrote poetry etc…and she expected me to do great things..because I had working legs.

    I served my mother with all my strength, and sometime it was enough. She had given me life, and I owed her. My birth was exceptional and a miracle, so I should make miracles happen around me. I did not! I felt I was letting everyone down.

    Then I was in great danger of becomig bitter. I ran a race and came to the goal spitting blood and collapsed gasping for breath…but it wasn’t enough…I came in fourth! The other participants had legs too. They were faster than me and could practise more etc. I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t good enough.

    Then the gospel came into our lives. I was obviously never going to fit in with the beautiful saints who had developed all kinds of talents where I only dabbled a little here and there. They were kind to me but avoided me at the same time. I was too weird and too different. I took things too seriously for a young person.

    But the Lord made up the difference! He gave me exceptional love with a feeling of total acceptance, shortcomings and all. He showd me where I could serve, like Sachiko said, get things done. He sent me a husband that is truly remarkable, and children that were easy to love and had service in their hearts…but were not perfect. I wasn’t a perfect mother and I am far from being an exceptional grandmother. Turning left and right I see grandmothers doing things I can’t even dream about.

    What can I teach? I just say go and do…and love, love love. During the years I have been called upon to help in the community because the very talented were too busy and not accessible. Going on to do a job you know others could do better, and will readily tell you so, is not easy, but it is rewarding anyway. Knowing you are not the best at anything can drag you down, but when you learn to get your reward from the inside glow (that follows quiet service) your heart ends up soaring to exceptional hights.

    This is not a good day for me to write. Others have expressed their feelings more eloquently. I agree with Rosalyn about the need to be careful in what we say. Yet, a kind word can go a long way to motivate into action. An attempted word is often a pivotal point in someones despair, where waiting to find the right words we fail to lift and strengthen each other.

    I believe growing girls can become exceptionally astute in seeing opportunities to lift and love, and not get caught in the trap of entitlement. I lift my hat to you young ones who put so much thought and effort in teaching and guinding. Even an “older” woman can learn by listening in on your conversations.

    Thank you !!!

  20. What Jana said.

    This has actually been on my mind so much in the last year or so. I have been given gifts, and I have tried to use them, but somehow I expected that in using them, I would be special (and yes, the quotes we read as youth did have something to do with that.) Instead, I have been humbled. And maybe that’s the point.

    I love love love that Flannery O’Connor quote. I may print it out and put it on my piano. The Lord HAS asked to us to increase our talents, but never has promised us prestige and importance as we do it. I think in the long run, I will be happy to do my “small things with great love.”

  21. I stop thinking past 10pm, so I’m just soaking in all of these great thoughts and wanted to just say thank you, Rosalyn, for an interesting discussion!

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