Recently I passed through London, and made my way to Westminster Abbey for Evensong. En route to my seat, I passed many special people (or at least their remains): Isaac Newton, Edward Elgar, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson–to name just a few. One of the greatest honors the United Kingdom can bestow on its citizens is burial in the Abbey. I couldn’t help but feel, shall we say, less than accomplished in such august company. These are not so much the 1% of accomplished individuals but the 0.00001%. The people buried in the Abbey quite literally changed the world.
Where does this leave the rest of us? There are lots of scientists, authors, and leaders. There is very little room in the Abbey. If the metric of one’s success in life is being counted among the great worthies of history, the sad fact is that 99.99999% of the population will be failures. In other words, the folks in Lake Wobegon are wrong: not all the children are above average–only about half.
By definition, “special” is rare, and we can’t all be extraordinary if the word is to mean anything. Yet much of modern life, in the west at least, is spent trying to prove just how special we are. Maybe not Isaac Newton special, but special enough to get that dream job or to earn admission at the best school. We want to be as high on the specialness scale as we can, and institutions and products are all only too willing to tell you both how special they are and how special they can make you, the consumer.
But is being special or elite really a goal we should set for ourselves? Alina Tugend recently asked just this question in the New York Times, wondering:
“If there is any room for the ordinary any more, for the child or teenager — or adult — who enjoys a pickup basketball game but is far from Olympic material, who will be a good citizen but won’t set the world on fire.”
With apologies to St. Ignatius (he of “Go and set the world on fire” fame), Tugend’s reflection suggests that perhaps being special is not something worth pursuing in itself.
Instead, maybe we should endeavor to do good. After all, the reason we celebrate someone like Isaac Newton is not so much because he was special, but because he did something good. Where specialness is zero-sum, goodness is not. Newton’s theories are good because they could be built on by countless physicists from his time to the present. Each one added a contribution to the grand project that Newton started, and even he attributed his expansive vision to the fact that he stood on “the shoulders of giants.”
Something similar can be said for many who lie in the Abbey. Political leaders can only govern well with a state full of hard working, unsung individuals. A writer both emerges from and serves a community of readers. Ecclesiastical ministry depends on many uncelebrated saints whose remains fill less-renowned churchyards and cemeteries.
There are of course good people who are also extraordinary, though their goal is rarely to summit the ladder of specialness. For the rest of us, we can still be good–even if not quite extraordinary.