McCullough said to hundreds of hopeful, high school graduates:
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your [under-nine] soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.”
Let’s define “special.” According to Webster’s Dictionary:
1. of a distinct or particular kind or character: a special kind of key.
2. being a particular one; particular, individual, or certain: You’d better call the special number.
3. pertaining or peculiar to a particular person, thing, instance, etc.; distinctive; unique: the special features of a plan.
4. having a specific or particular function, purpose, etc.: a special messenger.
5. distinguished or different from what is ordinary or usual: a special occasion; to fix something special.
From these definitions, you can understand why some people took offense to his message.
I, for one, believe we all possess a distinct set of characteristics that sets us a part from one another. I don’t think many will deny the fact that we’re all individuals possessing unique qualities that render us valueable. Many a teacher, preacher and daytime talk show host has told us as much.
If you go on to watch the entire speech you will come to understand that McCullough didn’t technically, literally mean “special.” What McCullough really meant was, you are not entitled. But saying “you are not entitled” to a bunch of high school seniors may only cause a snicker of collusion among the parents. Saying ”you are not SPECIAL,” will raise eyebrows and get you into Bill O’Reilly’s Talking Points, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show and a defense from the Christian Science Monitor among many, many others.
I saw it at least three times in my Facebook and Twitter streams.
Let’s put his speech into context, shall we? McCullough was speaking to roughly 300 of the most privileged high school graduates on the planet. These students were graduating from what US News ranks the #260 best high school in the nation. Eighty-seven percent of the school’s population is white and only 4% qualify as economically disadvantaged.
So yeah, a few of them might benefit from being told bluntly that they “are not special.”
His message spread far and wide over the interwebs because entitlement is a hot-button political issue by way of moral belief. If I’m honest, I can’t say that I disagree with that sentiment. I believe that people shouldn’t feel entitled to things they haven’t worked to earn. I’m a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of gal.
But I also believe we are all important and uniquely valuable and I’d much rather remind people of their absolute specialness, rather than their ultimate insignificance. Everyday life does a pretty good job of that already.
McCullough goes on to reference a contemporary society that covets being famous for nothing, that measures their worth in Twitter followers and self-satisfaction. All things I mostly agree with.
In fact, I completely agree with his second to last statement:
“And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
But it is McCullough’s last sentence that makes me reticent to endorse his entire message. I can’t decide if he wrote it just to tie it all up with a convenient bow and circle back to the most provocative statement, or if he really meant this?
“The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.”
Because I flatly disagree with this statement in this form. From my own experience, my sweetest joys in life did not come at the realization that I am not special, but rather from the realization that I am more special than I ever knew–that in the vast, grand scheme of things my life matters if for no other reason that I was born.
When McCullough says that being in service of others, what he terms “selflessness” is the greatest thing you can do for yourself, as I said, I whole-heartedly agree. But my last statement would have been that it is BECAUSE of this ‘service to others’ that you find the nature of your true specialness and by doing so, come to understand the absolute specialness of everyone else… and maybe (hopefully) that is what David McCullough meant.
That one of life’s sweetest joys comes from the recognition that we are all One. That because we are all connected to each other on this planet, as members of the human race, we are simultaneously all special and not special at all, unique and also, completely the same.
If that’s what he meant… well then, I couldn’t agree more.