Valuable, Not Special 1

Sheep lying together in a field, one of the standing - the special one

To Seek Healing

The woman lay unresponsive in the hospital bed. Tubes and wires connected her to machines that kept her alive. Standing at her side, her husband stroked her hand. She didn’t flinch, stir, blink. No movement at all.

The man asked me to pray that his wife be healed. After all, Jesus raised up Lazarus after he had been dead four days. Surely he could cure this woman who was so beloved. So I prayed for healing, believing as I do that healing means many things. Our hearts need restoration; our spirits get wounded and need to be soothed. These are worth praying for.

Rarely, though, have I seen patients come back from an oblivion of brain death, no matter how hard the family prays. Perhaps we are not as special to God as Lazarus, who was a follower of Jesus and a brother to his friends, Martha and Mary. Does God play favorites? If we listen to prosperity preachers and people who narrowly escape death, we might think so, but it’s not about favorites, nor about specialness. Healing is about love and connections, the stuff that makes life matter.

A flock of sheep with one standing; the special one.

Born From the Monkeys

Of course, I did not say this to the grieving husband. Instead, I spoke words he would understand and that I hoped would bring him a measure of peace.

After my prayer, he murmured something to his wife about God’s power. “Good thing we’re not like those people who think they came from monkeys,” he said to her, chuckling. “Remember how we’d laugh at them? We know where we came from, from God, and we know where we’re going. Nothing else matters, right, honey?”

His tenderness and his longing touched me, even as his reference to monkeys startled me. Our capacity to develop unshakable beliefs based on rumor and pseudo-science is incredible. What image formed in his mind when he heard about our descent from the apes? Did he envision two chimpanzees, those being our closest cousins, or was it actually monkeys in his mind, copulating and giving birth to a big-headed hairless thing? Is that what he thought evolution was about?

In high school, I had an art teacher who told us we should always have an opinion. It didn’t matter if we were right or not. We should draw the best conclusion we could with whatever knowledge we had at the time. If we later learned something that proved that opinion wrong, then we should change it.

It may be wiser to admit when we don’t know something. Yet is a kind of wisdom to believe, even fervently, and still be open to new ideas.

To Live On After Death or Not

The husband was not open to new ideas. He laughed at them. If he took them seriously, he would have to accept that he and his wife were not so special, after all, that like the rest of us, they were an insignificant part of an amazing universe. If the man opened himself to the possibility of evolution, he might start to question his god or doubt the power of prayer. That would devastate him, for sometimes prayer is the only thing that makes us feel we have some control over our lives.

Years ago I read a book by a Christian author who did not believe in life after death. He argued that we humans are like ants, many and fleeting. If ants don’t have eternal souls, why should we? What makes us so special that our individual essences should exist for eternity?

This idea isn’t new. Most Jews, for example, believe that after we die we live on in the memories of those who love us, but that’s all. Having been raised by two atheists, I was used to the idea that consciousness is a material thing, extinguished at death.

Resistance to New Ideas

Nonetheless, when I read the author’s words, I felt a clenching of fear in my gut. I hadn’t realized I found comfort in the possibility that my essence might live on after my body failed, yet there it was. When this writer questioned that idea, my world rocked a little bit.

How much worse would such an idea feel for this mourning husband? He would reject it as he had the idea of evolution.

Yet not even scientists are always open to new possibilities. Ann Gibbons, in her book The First Human, tells the story of geologists, zoologists, and paleontologists who argue with one another, defend cherished theories, and refuse to consider fledgling ideas. In a competitive field, where success means having your name connected to the most ancient specimen, the most startling observation, or the new missing link, entrenched opinions dominate. This sounded to me like the arguments that splinter religious denominations, separate spiritualists from materialists, and leave us stuck in our own worldview, whatever it is.

Not So Special

You could say we’re acting like monkeys. But why shouldn’t we? We may be human, but we’re still apes. We’re not as special as we imagine. Koko the gorilla can understand human language and make signs for kitten and for love. Whales and dolphins talk to one another. Elephants communicate in many ways, including with subtle flaps of their ears. Even trees convey information through roots and leaves and the wind.

Everything we think makes us unique turns out to be not so special, after all. We decide we are the only tool-makers, then find that birds and mammals create them, too. The intelligence and problem-solving skill of ravens and wolves is well known. Insects show evidence of complex thinking. Honeybees can separate objects into like and unlike, and ants change work assignments as they age. [1] For generations we’ve assumed only humans understood mortality, yet as we pay attention, we see that other animals mourn. Does this not indicate some awareness of a body’s passing? The more we discover about the wonders of the natural world, the less special we seem.

Specialness as Entitlement

But what do we mean by specialness? Is it the belief that we’re better than other animals, or something more?

Mosab Alkhteb, who writes about spiritual issues from a Buddhist perspective, says that if we think we’re special, we think we’re above average. We expect to excel in relationships, career, and health simply because we’re us. [2]

We also think we’re kinder and more moral than others. Since “we’re married to ourselves for life,” writes psychologist Jeremy Sherman, “we make accommodations.” We behave as if rules apply to everyone but us. We forgive ourselves more quickly than we do others. When others mistreat us, we get upset, but we fail to recognize when we mistreat them. We justify our own actions more easily than we do anyone else’s. [3]

Of course, not everyone feels this way. Some people feel special in their awfulness. They have learned that they’re a failure, a mistake. They claim the specialness of shame. This shame can lead to despair and depression, but it can also lead to arrogance.

Are Others Not Special, Too?

While driving home from work the other day, one of those massive trucks on giant tires passed in front of me. In its back window was a sticker that read, “Fuck Gun Control.” What causes someone to be so passionate about owning big, aggressive things? Is it shame, fear, abandonment? Do they use their specialness as a defense? Do they so believe in their right to own toys that enhance their power and confirm their greatness that they feel comfortable denying everyone else the right to feel safe?

Thinking we’re special can lead to a dangerous and frightening sense of entitlement.

Fear and Arrogance

The Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck talks about the arrogance that lies beneath our sense of specialness. We become arrogant about our accomplishments, our religiosity, our good looks, our humility. We become self-centered and judgmental and “create all kinds of misery for ourselves and others.” [4]

To sustain this arrogance, we cling to a belief in our ego, our individual self. In her book Nothing Special, Beck uses the metaphor of a stream to describe what happens when we get caught up in this illusion of specialness. As it flows, a stream meets logs or rocks that cause it to form whirlpools. These eddies seem separate from the stream itself, though the water that flows through them is the same water that makes up the rest of the stream. Not only does fresh water spill into and out of the whirlpools throughout the day, but the pools themselves are temporary, coming and going as structures shift.

If we understand this, though, we will realize we are not special. We are just part of the ebb and flow of life, a whirlpool in a stream. When we protect our ego with the fantasy of specialness, whether that means we think God created us out of clay and ribs, or whether it means we long to be stronger and meaner and better armed than anyone else, we are trying to escape pain. “Our whole energy goes into trying to protect our supposed separateness.” [5] Freedom comes when we can face our pain and deeply experience whatever life brings us, whether we like it or not. By refusing to feel, by avoiding truth, we become miserable.

Not Special, But Valuable

If, instead, we could “allow fresh currents into awareness,” Beck says, we would feel more alive and fulfilled. [6] If we could let go of the need to be special, we might realize that even though we are as insignificant as pools that form and fade, we are also important. We matter.

Whirlpools create protected places for insects to be born and grow, for fish to rest, for leaves to fall to the floor of the stream, there to be eaten. An entire ecosystem depends on these eddies.

In the same way, each of us is part of a family, a neighborhood. Who we are and what we do impacts and influences those around us. We make choices about how we will treat one another, and those choices and our actions can change the flow of the stream itself. In small and big ways, we matter to our friends, our pets, our gardens, our co-workers. Being special doesn’t give us value. What gives us value is being alive, loving one another, and flowing as part of the stream.

Loving and Letting Go

If we can get past the illusion that we are special, that we are entitled to bigger and better, then we can meet one another as real people, with needs and hurts and stories. We can open our hearts to each other because we won’t feel threatened when someone else gets attention or wins an award or asks us to set aside our weapons. In this way, we may find the freedom Beck talks about.

In the end, the husband agreed to remove the ventilator from his wife’s lungs and the tubes from her wrists. I stayed with him while her breath ebbed and her heart stopped. He talked to her, he wept, and he let her go. We talked about the world she was going to, that glorious, golden realm of God. This gave the man a sense of peace, knowing his wife was special enough that her soul would be saved for eternity. And maybe he was right. What do I know?

Yet we don’t have to be special to be saved, regardless of what salvation means to us. We just need to matter, to have value. And we do matter. The love we give and the love we receive give our lives meaning. If we must be special, then let us be special in that way.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Morrell, Virginia, Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Feelings of Our Fellow Creatures, Collingwoord, Victoria, Australia: Black, 2013, 50.
  2. Alkhteb, Mosab, “The Trap of Thinking You’re Special and Entitled to Success,” Tiny Buddha, https://tinybuddha.com/blog/trap-thinking-youre-special-entitled-success/, accessed 2/18/19.
  3. Sherman, Jeremy E., “Why Some People (Maybe Even Us) Think They’re So Special,” Psychology Today, January 7, 2015, accessed 2/18/19.
  4. Beck, Charlotte Joko, Everyday Zen: Love and Work, New York: HarperOne, 2009, 245.
  5. From Beck, Charlotte Joko, Nothing Special, quoted by https://www.ramdass.org/charlotte-joko-beck-and-nothing-special/, accessed 2/18/19.
  6. Ibid.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved


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