So Special and So Alone

Some people pursue the news and filter it for themselves, other people let Facebook do the filtering for them. I'm somewhat ashamedly a member of the second group, so most of my article-reading revolves around interesting opinion pieces that show up on Huffington Post, like this one: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. Perhaps you've also seen the perfectly legitimate response piece: Actually, A Few Doodles Don't Explain Why "Generation Y Yuppies" Are Unhappy.

To sum up both pieces: we of the 20-35 age range are unhappy because we have been told since childhood that we are very special people who deserve fairy tales, so we have set our expectations high, but then reality (i.e. hard work) sets in, and we don't know how to cope with the drop from the Point A illusion to the Point B facts of life. The response piece points out that it's not just a disease of "specialness," but also that certain economic factors have changed with the generational transition, leading perhaps to the change in expectations and language that are so glibly explained in the first article.

I think Herman's critique is a valid one, but I'm not so ready to dismiss the Wait But Why article either. To explain, let me begin with two stories.

The first: A friend of a friend isn't entirely sure what she wants by way of career goals. She thought she really wanted to be a baker or pastry chef, so she procured a job with a bakery. After three days on the job, she quit. Why? Because they had her washing dishes and not doing what she thought she should be doing.

The second: On my first day of this semester, I had ten minutes alone with the professor at the beginning of my German epics class, due to the only other student confusing his schedule. We chatted a bit about our backgrounds, and somehow I came to mention that I feel like I'm so different from most undergraduate students. I'm older by a few years; I commute; I took two gap years; blah, blah, blah. My professor teased me about being so old, and we both laughed, because really, two or three years isn't THAT much different, but there's more to it then that, as I realized when I thought about the incident later.

See, we ARE told from a young age that we're all special and all unique. I can hardly remember a time when teachers, family members, and friends' mothers (much to said friends' chagrin) were telling me how wonderful and this, that, and the other I am. While it's true that I, like anyone else, possess an array of positive attributes, I think it's telling that we've gotten to a point where a villain in a children's movie is trying to defeat superheros, "because when everybody is super, no one will be." It's a thought that everyone has to have. At some point, we face the fact that we are not primus inter pares, but rather, one of many, all of us dependent on each other for our forward motion.

What the friend of a friend's story and my story have in common is this: we both thought we were something special. In her case, that meant that she didn't have to take the low road and do the dirty work to get to the good parts. Life 101: if you're not willing to do the crappy stuff, you don't really deserve to do the fun stuff. But we want it all to be fun stuff, because yeah, we're special right? And in my case, I tend to think that I'm so unique and strange because I took a different route to get to where I am, and oh, I have such lofty goals, etc., but it's kind of silly to think about.

Ultimately there's nothing satisfying in being special. The original article mentions the Facebook phenomenon. We see other people's lives, and we perceive that they're living at the top of the mountain. How did they make it, and we didn't? It's a self-imposed alienation. But the alienation starts long before we ever log on to Facebook. This mentality of specialness contains two poles. First, we become alienated because we think we are better than everyone else, or at least, in my case, different from everyone else in some way (i.e. unique). Then, when that belief fails to play out properly in the real world, we remain alienated because we believe that others HAVE actualized some potential with their endless strings of engagementweddingbabyItalianvacation photos. Being special is like drinking whiskey. You feel all warm inside for a little while, but it's a false defense that can't stand up long against the cold.

So where does that leave us? Well, dependent. I had to write a thank you note recently because I received a named scholarship this year as part of my financial aid package. I honestly wouldn't have applied for a named scholarship, save that the financial aid office asked me to, so I was rather bemused that I was then being called upon to do extra work, all because I got something that someone else wanted for me. While, granted, I may have called upon my more florid writing style to compose said note, it did make me think about how much of my education has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

I live with my sister, who not only has given me a room, but also tons of advice and being-an-adult guidance and a really awesome raincoat to celebrate the fact that I'm going to England. My dad spent his entire Labor Day laboring over the cv axle on my car, because I'm a poor, stressed college student who needs to somehow make her car get through another year. My teachers invest time in lesson plans, homework grading, and somewhat individualized attention, insofar as they are able. Some of them have written reference letters for me or helped me through seemingly endless series of drafts to produce an application-worthy essay. And, as the thank you note reminded me, there are people who are literally paying for me to go to a fantastic school to study a subject that may or may not result in a paying job. Furthermore, at the end of all of this, the hope is not that I will do something personally fulfilling to my special self (although that would be cool too), but that I will somehow contribute to society in however large or small a way, and thereby turn that education toward the betterment of my world.

The point isn't to be special, which really just means to be alone. The point is to be specially suited to a particular role that is a piece of a much greater puzzle, wherein every piece is essential to the completion of the picture, but no one piece can fulfill that task alone. It's much warmer when you're snuggled up with other people than when you're snuggled up with a whiskey bottle, and that's a fact.*

*Not a fact that I know by experience, just so we're clear.


Interlude: Shalom

During my year at IMPACT, we discussed at various points the concept of this thing called shalom. I think that Rob Bell also touches on it in one of his earlier books, but basically the way I've come to understand it is that shalom happens when something about a fallen, broken world is made right. (As the Wikipedia article puts it, "Shalom, as term and message, seems to encapsulate a reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world;" and also, "Literally translated, shalam signals to a state of safety, but figuratively it points to completeness. In its use in Scripture, shalom describes the actions that lead to a state of soundness, or better yet wholeness. So to say, shalom seems not to merely speak of a state of affairs, but describes a process, an activity, a movement towards fullness.")

A peculiar dialectic surfaces throughout the New Testament: the Kingdom of God (the ultimate shalom) is both already and not yet. I suppose you could say that it is, but it is also becoming that which it is. Shalom is this thing, I think, where we're moving and working, seeing small progresses but never the whole picture, but always ultimately growing towards the final proclamation of Revelation 21:

"Behold, I make all things new." 

Words that bring tears to my eyes. Because isn't that one of our deepest desires? Maybe it's not something that you think of right away, but you just have to cast it in a different light. Take illness, for example. You probably know someone who has been affected by anything from multiple sclerosis to Down's syndrome to ALS, someone who "doesn't deserve this." We somehow recognize it as an injustice, and we want desperately for it to be otherwise. Maybe it's a grandparent or a mentor or your best friend from college who is in the prime of life, and how can they be facing cancer now? What we want is some kind of fairness, that these beautiful people should attract more of that which is beautiful and not that which is twisted and ugly.

At the risk of sounding a little strange, that is what I was thinking about when I read this blogpost: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/06/13/154924715/surgery-restores-sexual-function-in-women-with-genital-mutilation

The thing is, something horrible has happened to these women. Their personhood was violated in a cruel way that goes beyond sexual pleasure and orgasms. They have been made into objects by means of mutilation, transformed into passive vehicles for the satisfaction of another person's desire. And while it's true that this happens even to women (and men and children) who have not been physically mutilated, it is yet one more thing that enforces the inhumanity of what has been done to them.

The surgery that Foldes and other doctors are performing, that right there is shalom.  Restoration of what has been lost to the robbed and broken. And no, it's not perfect. It's not 100% effective. But that's the already and not yet, the messy, strange, and beautiful glimpses of what might be, like holes through which we may catch a sight of heaven and come away brightened and transformed by hope.

Maybe it's not what we're used to hearing: that God could care about women like that and that His shalom is manifested just as much in a reconstructed clitoris (I bet you never thought you'd hear the words "God" and "clitoris" in the same sentence either) as it is in a bowl of food given to a hungry child. But maybe that's because we have limited Him. Thankfully, He hasn't limited Himself. We just, like Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, have to say the spell that makes invisible things visible, so that our eyes are open to see that wherever there is restoration, there also is He.