By John Pendall
Exceptionalism. Alright, see you later; that was the entirety of my column.
What? I need to say more? Okay, that’s fine I guess. What I’m about to say may be a bit shocking, and no one has ever said it to me before in my entire life. Ready?
You do not have to be exceptional. You do not have to be extraordinary. You do not have to change the world.
I was miserable throughout much of my life. One of the reasons was because our culture taught me that I have to be exceptional, I have to be extraordinary, I have to change the world. Those are achingly obscene demands to place on someone, and it begins in childhood. I’m lucky that my parents never placed such expectations on me. The media, peers, teachers, bosses and even the clergy force-fed me these expectations.
I’m not a parent, but I’d imagine it’s terrifying to realize that we can’t shield our children from these influences—we can’t protect them from our culture itself.
Even in the world of Zen, there is exceptionalism. We are encouraged to be benevolent Bodhisattvas, to be Buddhas, to save all sentient beings though beings are numberless. To cast out all delusions, even though delusions are uncountable. Where is the vow to do the best I can with what nature has given me—to serve all in whatever ways come naturally to me?
We are taught to reach for the stars, but that frame of mind can make living on the ground intolerable.
Our culture teaches that failure is a mortal sin, that being happy with being ordinary is the most unforgivable form of blasphemy. We are taught to make a mark, to shatter the mold, to push the envelope. Is it any wonder that many of us are so dissatisfied and unhappy?
Even if someone is that rare person who makes a mark, that mark is impermanent. So even if I somehow fulfill this outrageous cultural expectation, I will still inevitably be dissatisfied. It’s a no-win situation, like Kobayashi Maru in Star Trek.
How do I avoid losing a game that I can’t win? I don’t play.
There is such an unfathomable relief that comes from realizing that I don’t have to be exceptional. It’s liberating to know that I can live my life without having to be a success story, without having to move mountains or alter the tides of time. I am an expression of nature, and it’s nature that’s truly exceptional and extraordinary. The most glorious achievements of humanity are mere shadows compared to the awesome majesty of the Dharma, the Tao, the what-have-you.
Expectations ruin our lives and put us at odds with one another.
The more I strive to be exceptional, the blinder I’ll be to how exceptional life is. The harder I strive to be extraordinary, the more I’ll miss how extraordinary the ordinary is. You do not have to be exceptional. You do not have to be extraordinary. You do not have to change the world—nature does this on its own.
The true bliss, joy and peace come from watching it happen.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”
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