Recently, Wellesley (MA) High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr. (the son of famed author by the same name) raised eyebrows at the commencement ceremony when he told students, “you’re not special.” Most commencement speakers throw out accolades to graduates like cheap plastic necklaces at Mardi Gras, but McCollough restrained himself (though not completely).
Reminding them that at graduation “…we are on a literal level playing field.” “That matters,” he continued. “That says something. And your ceremonial costume … shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma … but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
Contrary to what your u9 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.”
McCullough also lamented the tendency of Americans as of late to “love accolades more than genuine achievement.”
“It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune … one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School … where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the mid-level curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said ‘one of the best.’ I said ‘one of the best’ so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.”
McCullough urged the Class of 2012 not to just do things for the sake of personal accomplishment or self-indulgence, but because “you love it and believe in its importance.”
All of this is well and good and a wise, if not clever, admonition to those newly minted graduates. It is true: when my kids were playing youth soccer everyone got a trophy. When my wife organized the teams she received phone calls from distraught parents that accused her of consigning their daughters to a psychiatrist’s couch because she broke up the Red Team. When parent’s were asked to help out with the latest school fundraiser hands shot up with exclamations that “I’m a city planner,” “I’m an architect,” “I write educational grants”–all ways of saying, “I’m special.”
Context, of course, means everything. McCollough’s words were completely appropriate for Wellesley Hills, or Shaker Heights, or Grosse Pointe, but not for Roxbury, Harlem or East L.A. There adolescents can’t hear enough of Jesse Jackson’s refrain, “God doesn’t make junk.” There a trip to the jailhouse or to the emergency room from a random drive by shooting is more likely than a trip to Europe over spring break with the honor society. There children need reminders daily that they are special, even as it means clawing and grinding your way out of your current circumstances. But I digress.
What McCollough says is actually quite Biblical. We are image-bearer’s of the Most High God, yet we have “all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Jesus said he longed to gather us like chicks under his wings and in Revelation he says he wants to spew us out of his mouth because we are so luke-warm.
It’s Luther’s old, Simul Justus et Peccator, simultaneously justified by God’s grace and sinners. We are Jekyll and Hyde’s, mixed up kids who don’t know our own mind, battling this internal civil war, “doing the very thing we don’t want to do.” (Romans 7).
There is a wonderful Hassidic story about a young woman who approaches a respected and learned Rabbi with great fear and trepidation. In very deferential fashion she asks him: “Rabbi, what must we do to be holy?” He shrugs his shoulders and keeps walking. She follows close behind and implores him: “Rabbi, what must we do to be holy?” He stops this time and thinks for a long while. Finally, he says, “Keep your hands in both pockets.” She is startled, confused and a bit perturbed. “What is this nonsense! Keep your hands in both pockets?”
Then, out of one pocket he pulls a handful of dust and says, “Remember that you are dust. From dust you have come and to dust you will return,” quoting Genesis 3:19. Then out of the other pocket he drew a little crown and he said, “Remember, you are made a little lower than God and God has crowned you with glory and honor,” quoting Psalm 8:4.
This is the paradox of being human. On the one hand we are dust. We are water, iron, potassium, sodium, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. We are bones and flesh and teeth and organs. We are jumble of atoms, molecules, chemicals, electricity and dust. When we die, we will return to the earth and rot. But we are also “created a little lower than that angels,” as the King James version puts it. We are made in the image and likeness of God. As such we are spiritual beings, beloved children of God, able to think thoughts after God, able to create beautiful art and life itself, able to communicate, to relate to, and to love another different than ourselves. “We live at the juncture of nature and spirit,” as Reinhold Niebuhr put it.
Commencement for the Christian is baptism. It is there that we are told that we are special–a unique creature of God, redeemed by Christ, sustained by the Holy Spirit, with days ahead filled with promise and grace even if stony and hard. Yet, we’re also told, “You think you’re special? Not so much.” Baptism is the great leveler. “None is righteous, no not one.” We’re all one at the foot of the cross. If you hadn’t made such a botch of it, why would I have needed to come and clean your mess up? We no more arranged our new birth than we did our original birth. It’s gift. After someone gives you a gift your don’t take a ten out of your wallet and pay the giver. No, you say thank you.
And with the best of gifts, you give it away. McCollough concluded his address with the assertion that selflessness is the best personal quality to possess, and that “the sweetest joys of life … come only with the recognition that you’re not special, because everyone is.”
Sound familiar? “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.'” (Matthew 16:24, New Living Translation).