I’ve always wanted to be special. Haven’t you?
I was 5 years old when I became aware of this, but I was too emotionally immature to understand what I was feeling. I was outside the front of our house in Atlanta when a sudden thought struck me.
“I’m 5 years old and there are five of us in the family,” I said to myself in wonder. “That must mean I’m special.”
To an adult mind, that thought is nonsense. The coincidence was meaningless. But to a 5 year old who’s unconsciously struggling to feel special, it was something to hold onto. For that moment, it meant everything to me.
When we first reach self-awareness as tiny toddlers, the world revolves around us. All we experience are our needs and we know that the demands of our needs are met by other people. We don’t consciously understand that, but something in us gets it. We are special. We are the king or queen of the world for the moment.
You don’t remember it, but you felt that way. So did I. And we have spent our entire lives unconsciously trying to recover that wonderful moment when the world revolved around us — when we were special.
Over the few years after birth, that feeling of being special is slowly taken away from us. As we start being taught how to act, we learn to be polite and to take other people into account. We can’t be the self-centered creatures we were to start and still fit into our families or into human society.
But we unconsciously still want to go back — in some way — to feeling the way we felt when the world revolved around us.
So as we grow up, we try to strike some odd mix of fitting in and standing out. We want other people to think we’re special. As we find things we’re good at, we pursue those things, whether those things are academic, athletic or creative. We push ourselves to be great at some particular thing if we find something we’re good at. We tell ourselves it’s because we love those activities, but it’s really mostly because doing those things allows us feel special again.
Maybe not enough of the time, but enough to get a huge hit of the intoxicating feelings that make us happy — the feelings which let us feel special again.
Then those things are no longer enough.
Maybe people would applaud those things but they don’t translate well to adult life. Your Little League trophies and high school football glories might have made you feel special when you were young, but you can’t keep doing those things forever.
So you unconsciously look for the next way to be special. Depending on your talents and how you’re wired, you might feel special by making more money or getting more job prestige or having the best material possessions or having the most sexual conquests.
I’ve unconsciously changed my strategies for feeling special over the years. First, I tried just being the smartest guy in every room. Then, I was the most competent person. I made myself really good at skills that others admired. I was a good writer, good editor, good photographer, good designer. I might not have been the best, but I always did well enough to feel special among those I might be compared to.
Even today, I want you to read my words and think I must be special to have things to say. I want you to see my photographs and be impressed with my talents. I work hard at times to make beautiful things, because I want others to see my work — such as this photograph of the Thursday night sunset — and think I am special. That was never conscious to me, but I’ve become aware of it.
Eventually, those things which we’ve counted on — money, talent, success, prestige, whatever — feel empty because there’s always someone better than you. There are better writers than I am. There are better photographers than I am. And there is someone who’s more impressive than you are, too.
There’s always someone who has more claim on being special than I do or you do. The things which made you feel special slowly start to seem routine. They’re not enough. The unconscious emptiness is back. You’re not good enough anymore, even though you’re still performing as you always have. You don’t feel special — and that feels empty.
Along the way, you’ve dabbled in love. You knew you needed love, but you could never sustain something that made you special. When you were young, love was basically a one-way street. You got all the love — from your parents or other adults — but that started to change as you struggled to fit into your family and society.
So love eventually becomes transactional for you. If that person gives you this, you will give him that. You don’t know you’re doing it, but that’s the way immature love works. Love is just another unspoken contract to you. Every love relationship is about balancing what you get with what you give. At first, that works. You’re both getting attention and you feel special.
Then you realize — with a vague feeling of discontent — that you’re not getting what you need from a relationship anymore. You pull back what you’re giving to the other person — so that person will feel obligated to feed your hunger again in order to get what he needs from you.
Eventually, that tit-for-tat strategy turns into a cold war, then a hot war. The person you used to count on for love slowly comes to hate you. Eventually, the hatred and resentment cool into indifference. You’re no longer the least bit special. You’ve failed.
How can you fail at a quest you don’t even realize you’re pursuing? It’s not fair. It’s because life doesn’t come with a user manual. Even more important, it’s because our parents mostly never figured this out. Few people ever do figure it out. Most people are just blindly pursuing the same failed strategies that we’ve pursued. So what have we somehow missed? How can we be special?
Life’s paradox is that the only way for you to really be special is to love someone else unconditionally.
You and I have unconsciously spent our lives trying to be and do things which would make others see us as special — which would make them love us and give us value. And no matter how much we tried, everyone else was doing the same things. Nobody ever felt special for very long.
But there is one way to be special. You can love someone else without conditions.
Most of us do that automatically with children, especially our own. I believe that something in us instinctively knows that and this is why we are irrationally committed to having offspring and investing so much into them. (I think Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” theory is simply mistaken.)
And then there are the people we choose to love. When you finally love someone even when you’re not getting anything in return, you know you’re moving in that direction. (I should point out that there are certain emotionally unhealthy people who are codependents or worse who have a dysfunctional need to give to someone who can never give back in return. That’s not what I’m talking about. Those relationships are unhealthy and need to end.)
The beauty of this discovery is that it works best when two people discover it together and live it with each other.
If you love me unconditionally — without regard for what you might get out of it or what anybody else might think or what the cost might be — you become more special than you ever dreamed of being. If I love you unconditionally — without regard for your flaws or failings or for what it might cost me — I become special in a way that none of my talents could ever make me.
When that sort of unconditional love happens — especially when it’s mutual — it makes each of those people the single most special person who could exist in this world. It creates something transcendent. It creates something which is immortal — and will outlive the human lives of the individuals involved.
You and I both want to be special. We’ve tried all sorts of ways to try to reclaim that feeling of being special that we both once had. Everybody else around us is doing the same thing — but almost nobody understands what he or she is doing.
The irony is that we have to give up much of the “false self” that we have built in our efforts to feel special. We have to throw away a lot of what we have assumed was part of who we were. We have to give up much of what we had assumed could make us feel special again. We have to bet completely on unconditional love — and stop counting on talent or smarts or success or money or the dozens of other strategies we are desperate to cling to.
That doesn’t mean we can’t use our talents. It doesn’t mean we can’t be successful. It doesn’t mean we have to be poor. It just means that those things become normal tools of life, not the magical things which we’ve counted on to make us special — to make us feel good enough, to make us feel loved.
You can be special. I can be special. Anybody can be special.
But it’s not something which someone else can give to you. It’s something which happens automatically when you change your values, your expectations, your actions and your priorities.
In the Christian Gospel of Mark, there is a story about a rich young man who comes to see Jesus. The man asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus told him a few things and the man said he had already done those things.
Then Jesus told him something peculiar. He told the man to sell all that he had and give the money away — and then come to follow him.
“At this the man’s face fell,” the scripture in Mark says. “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
Why did Jesus tell the man to get rid of his wealth? Is there something bad about wealth? No. Jesus knew the rich man put so much value on his wealth that he would be unable to follow Jesus as long as he clung to the money.
Jesus was telling the man to get rid of the thing which kept him from committing to following him. Jesus knew the man couldn’t follow him — because he had something else which he valued even more.
That’s the way this is. You can’t hold onto your dependence on the things which have failed you before and still be able to become truly special by loving unconditionally. You have to give up the things you’ve been afraid to lose — and then stake your future on love.
Jesus knew the rich young man would be unable to follow what he told him he had to do. Anybody who learns how to receive what he or she needs — but is unwilling to pay the price — will not be able to receive what he or she needs.
The only way you can be special is to love someone else unconditionally and without counting on all the things which have been so important to you. The only way I can be special is to give up the things which I’ve counted on to make me special and to love unconditionally instead.
Few people are ever able to do this. Most are just like the rich young man who heard the truth and went away sad. Just like him, most of us are unwilling to pay the price which we’re terrified to pay — even though it would give us what we most need.
So most people will remain unhappy and continue fruitlessly searching for a way to feel special — even after they understand how they could finally have exactly what they’ve always needed.
Note: I wrote this on my iPhone sitting on my front porch around 3 in the morning on a beautifully comfortable June night. It wasn’t planned. It’s pretty much stream of consciousness. For that reason, I’m not even reading it for typos. Please forgive any errors you find. I want it to retain the raw feel of the unedited thoughts.