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On the virtue of not being special

January 16th, 2014 Posted in Faith and Life

“I have a sense,” I once told a counselor, “that I’m supposed to do something great.”

He sat back in his chair and smiled. “Oh yeah. Everyone has that feeling about himself. Especially in this country.”

I was deflated for weeks. My sense of destiny was just a psychological quirk born of Western narcissism. Maybe I was only destined for mediocrity and anonymity. Living a great life, I believed then (though I would not have admitted this) is synonymous with fame. I suppose that error still creeps into my heart.

Everyone has that feeling about himself. My counselor’s point was that I’m no one special. It was that I should get off my high horse and realize the laws of creation and death apply to me just like everyone else, which meant I’d damn well better start being a more faithful father and husband and employee. He was right, and dear God, how I wish I’d listened sooner.

I am no one special, and neither are you.

This is not, however, because we are destined for inconsequential lives. Many of us just have to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to live well. To craft beauty, to care for those who need us, to live honorably—surely these are the elements of a great life, though television viewers don’t care to see a sturdy grandfather or an orphanage director profiled on the E! Channel.

Ferdinand Leeke Auf der Parkbank

Everyone feels destined for greatness, but clearly, we don’t all live it out. Many of us are drowning in purposelessness. You know what a drowning person does? He grabs hold of anything close. Toss a cinderblock in the water where he flails, and he’s liable to wrap his arms around it.

You want to know if you’re drowning? Consider what you’ve laid hold of. When I read the parable of the talents, I imagine accounting on Judgement Day for every hour wasted in front of the television, every bottle drunk to wash back regret and fear, every meaningless sexual encounter, every minute frittered away avoiding the hard work that is living well. At least the faithless servant hid his talent under a rock. Where did I spend mine?

We are called to great purpose, but many of us aren’t answering. When we are younger, this may be because we imagine success will wash over us. I feel destined for greatness. My destiny will just hurl itself my way once I step out my front door. When we are older, we struggle to answer because we are weighted down. Greatness? I’m just trying to make it to Friday.

I’ve lived both illusions. Greatness will not bite you on the ass, and part of what’s weighing you down is that millstone you’re holding as you tread water. But don’t be deceived; you are indeed called to a purpose. You can know this is true if only because sometimes you fear what that purpose may be.

We are called, but we grow deaf to the direction from which it comes. The only way to hear again is to still ourselves. Turn off the distractions, and listen. I don’t mean entreat God with all manner of requests. I mean listen. Listen in the stillness of your heart. Listen, as Fred Buechner writes, for what fills you with deep gladness. A real, look-in-the-eyes-and-be-honest talk with your child? Do that more. Ladling soup at the shelter? Do that more. Taking a walk as the sun rises, and naming every blessing? Put on your walking shoes and thank God.

Everyone feels called to something great. That’s because each of us is crafted to give something of ourselves to a world crying out for redemption. The great tragedy of life—and for God’s sake, don’t let it be the tragedy of your life—is how few of us take the time to listen, and to answer.

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