Mutations (Reflections on Life)

Not All That: In Defense of Anti-Exceptionalism

good grades 2Someone once told me that I would have a much easier time in life if I simply accepted the fact that I’m exceptional. He wanted me to accept the fact that I am “more” (as in more intelligent, capable, talented), than some and possibly many, because he thought it would help me be less offended and morally outraged when others express or imply that they are “more,” not necessarily “more” than me, but “more” than anyone.

I hate most superlatives, labels (“Ivy League”), rankings (yes, U.S. News and World Report), prejudgments, and assumptions. All forms of classism and elitism usually annoy me. I’m a big believer in not judging a book by its cover and never assuming that you know what the book is about, even if you’ve read it. I’ve made it a point in life never to underestimate people because I hate being underestimated.

You never know what a person is capable of and you should never be surprised when they show you more than you expected. The man on the street and the businessman on Wall Street are all the same to me. If you gave them both a complex math problem, I wouldn’t be shocked if the man on the street finished first. And if he didn’t, if he had no idea how to approach the problem, I wouldn’t think that that made him any less intelligent than the person who did.

This particular person finds my “anti-exceptionalist” views amusing because for most of my life, I have usually been listed alongside some superlative and I now attend an “Ivy League” school that is ranked in U.S. News and World Report. However, it’s because of the weight that society (a society in which I’ll have to live and work) puts on labels like these, not the weight that I put on them, that I choose to be affiliated with them at all. If I didn’t, it wouldn’t make me any less of the person I am. Just because those labels might apply to me doesn’t mean I subscribe to them. Actually, I refuse to subscribe to them.

None of the attributes I possess and none of the things I have accomplished make me exceptional. They might make me the grateful recipient of an opportunity that hasn’t been afforded to some other people, but they do not make me different from, or more importantly, superior to those people. And the day I start to act or believe that they do is the day that I need to pack it all in and take the first thing smoking back to Brooklyn.

I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing or have done. I’m not saying that I’m not intelligent, or capable, or talented, but I am saying that that intelligence, or capability, or talent is not a rare breed of something that only I (or a select few) possess. I believe that all people are stars, but that many people haven’t been granted the opportunity to find their light. Some, unfortunately, never will be. I know that everything I’ve done has been because I stand on the shoulders of people who have made it possible.

I also know that I haven’t done anything magical. I’ve only done what I was supposed to do. I don’t deserve a cookie for that and I don’t think most people do either. I can acknowledge and even celebrate my achievements without comparing them to the achievements of others or without putting the achievements of others down.

If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I’m in a period of transition. I finally bought a school sweatshirt a few weeks ago. The first time I wore it I found myself having a weird psychosocial/physical reaction (don’t ask me what that is, I just made it up) to the set of letters across my chest. I felt that it wasn’t me.

And it’s not the school, it’s what I sometimes worry that others may feel that it represents. It’s what I sometimes feel it may represent: status, privilege, entitlement, exceptionalism. They’re things that make other people proud but that repulse me. And it’s not that everyone (or even most people) have specifically put off that vibe, but it’s the belief and expectation of some that that’s what those letters mean.

I understand that most of the time when people claim exceptionalism it is a defense mechanism used to downplay the threat they feel from others who they fear might share and thus contradict their “exceptional-ness.” Although they may not see it that way, when politicians talk about “American exceptionalism” it is usually in the context of putting down the views, accomplishments, or nationalistic pride of some other nation. Yet greatness recognizes and appreciates greatness in others.

And today I had a moment. As much as I hate to acknowledge or admit when I’m upset–particularly to people outside of a very core group of friends of mine–I understand the value of sometimes letting myself feel whatever it is I’m feeling.

The moment reminded me that I don’t ever want to drink the Kool-Aid. I don’t ever want to think of myself as better than another person for any reason whatsoever. I don’t ever want to devalue or underestimate another person’s worth because I know what that feels like and that’s not what I’m about.

I want to be able to grow and progress mentally, socially, professionally, and emotionally without growing full of myself in the process, and I pray for the continued strength and guidance to do so.


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