On the virtue of not being special

“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.


  1. Pingback: Sand in the Gears » Blog Archive » On the virtue of not being special | kommonplaces

  2. Marc V

    All of these tweets, and no comment … surely something can be typed beyond a tweet for such a “great” post? I’ve never really considered that I am destined for greatness. My “curse” is that I feel I’m not using my talents properly and I’ve been coasting most of my life. At least that’s what I’ve been struggling with the past few years.

    My almost 16 y.o. son has told us he’s destined for greatness and will be famous with his band. He can then shake free the shackles of his repressive family and do what he wants to do(!), touring and helping people enjoy screamo throughout the land. I’m looking forward to seeing how famous you can get (as well as profitable) screaming into a microphone. The backup plan has me worried, though, as in lack of …

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    A comment from you is worth 100 tweets. I wrestle with the same thing with my son — his sense that the thing which currently interests him (in his case, making videos of his wonderful Minecraft creations) will be what allows him to earn a living. All I know to do is try to maneuver him into “market tests,” by dint of helping him pursue his goals, i.e., set up a Youtube channel for his creations, give him video-making software for Christmas, etc. I don’t want to be the person my kids can count on to crush their dreams, but I DO want to make sure they confront reality. It’s tough, in a culture that tells you at every turn that you can be anything you want, yet which hourly rewards distraction and indolence.

  4. Jeff

    I think we can’t always know when we have done something great. How often can we know the full impact we’ve had in a person’s life? We may not find the cure for cancer ourselves, or end world hunger, but instead, maybe we’ve played a role or influenced someone’s life in a way that inspires them to benefit mankind directly.
    Perhaps we are just the wings of a butterfly…

  5. Marc V

    My younger son (11 y.o.) is heavily into Minecraft too. He saved his money last year and was able to buy his own laptop. Now we have the problem of limiting his time, as he’ll take any open time for “mining”. I’m not worried as much about him finding gainful employment, as he seems to have the talent to put his mind to work and have someone pay him. His social skills do need help, and spending hours on Minecraft is not good for that.
    And yes, it’s a fine line between crushing dreams and giving “firm” guidance, but it’s part of the job description. Even if they do think they’re smarter than you!

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    I have an off-again/on-again rule in our house requiring every minute of digital entertainment time to be earned with a minute of reading. There is great weeping and gnashing of teeth when we enforce it, but I like to think it will have a good effect over time.

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