Exceptionalism

Americans detest being ordinary. In recent years, political scientists have begun to talk of “American Exceptionalism.” By this they are referring to an arrogant American assumption that our values, system and lifestyle are so superior to those of other countries that they should be exported to countries across the world. Further, that those countries should recognize the exceptional rewards of American life, and be thrilled to replace their own national ethos with ours. The term is not a compliment to American foreign policy.

The attitude of Exceptionalism is not limited to American national policy. It is also rampant in individuals in our culture. It takes the form of pushing ourselves unmercifully toward excellence, a drive that permeates the cultural complex and radically impacts our lives, often in very destructive ways. In the United States, this posture toward life is so universal that it seems normal. It emerges as an unrelenting drive toward exceptional status, a push for extraordinary success, recognition, and notice. It has a tendency to take control of our lives and unbalance them. We generally call it ambition, and consider it to be a positive trait. However, it has a shadow side.

Exceptionalism is an expression of the ego. It is founded on a sense of deficiency. It is rooted in feeling a lack of value. It is rooted in a perception of separateness. All egos have at their base a conviction of deficiency and valuelessness. This attitude of the ego is somewhat justified. The ego is a False Self, a carpentered-together substitute for the True Self, which is an emanation of essential Being. The ego is a sorry substitute for the True Self, and, at some deep level, it knows that and feels deficient about it. However, the ego insists on posing as the True Self, pretending that it is the True Self, and pretending that it is the pilot at the helm steering the ship of the organism.

The impulse to become exceptional or extraordinary is also posited on hierarchy. The ego envisions itself rising above other humans, separating itself from them by rising to a position of splendid, isolated prominence at the top of the hierarchical ladder. The impulse to be exceptional is all about obtaining the status and recognition of being special, of being more capable, more successful, more admirable than other people. Getting to this position of prominence necessarily involves competition with others, because they are also after those same rewards. If the internal push to get status at the top of the hierarchy becomes intense enough, it can produce behavior that leads beyond the bounds of ethics and morals. The standards of normal and decent behavior can be thrown aside. Eventually, shame can be the result.

Exceptionalism seems to be rooted in a fear of disappearing, being invisible, being unimportant, overlooked, unnoted, and dismissed. Although it can often get out of hand and begin to be destructive, at its base there is the simple desire to be appreciated by others. In women, it usually takes the form of wanting to be chosen. In men, it generally emerges as striving for achievement. In both, it is a reaching for narcissistic supplies. It is a reaching toward ground to support the ego and minister to its sense of emptiness and insufficiency. It is compensatory, attempting to create a self-image with worth and value in it. Unfortunately, the ego cannot create a sense of value in us, because it is laced with separateness. The sense of worth and value can only come from moving toward the unity of Being, from seeing oneself in context of the Whole, as a small but integral part of Something vast, magnificent and Cosmic. By its focus on the glorification of its own self, its own separateness, the individual ego is too self-absorbed and compromised to create value, and it knows it. The deficiency universally inherent in the ego may be temporarily relieved by personal achievement, but it soon returns and resurrects itself. The Wisdom Traditions have noted this for millennia.

There is another form of Exceptionalism that is very different from the ego’s version. It comes out of a matrix of Wholeness rather than separateness, and carries very different results for human life.  The Cosmos has so arranged things so that each of us is entirely unique, each completely exceptional, in our own right. We are each a center of the universe. We each have our own unique window onto reality. There has never been and will never be another human who has exactly the mix of traits, capacities, and makeup that you have. We are each born exceptional, emerging that way from the Living Cosmos. We do not have to beat ourselves to death trying to have value and become exceptional. We are already there. We are each a thread in the vast tapestry of Cosmic Life. We each have an individual part to play and an individual contribution to make to the Whole. We simply have to see our lives in the framework of the Whole rather than in the framework of the social system. We have to begin to search for our place in the vast framework of Being. We have to see ourselves in a larger framework than separateness and competing with the people around us. We have to realize the reality of unity.

It lifts an enormous burden to realize that we don’t have to do anything to be exceptional. It is OK to be ordinary. We do not have to achieve or be chosen. We do not have to be noticed by our fellow human beings to have value. If we give up our ego’s strenuous efforting to be exceptional and special, we can rely on the innate creativity of Being to unfold our lives. The universe is unfolding Itself, and us, without needing our assistance. If we can move to viewing ourselves in a Cosmic context rather than a limited, strictly social context, we will see that we already have the value that we seek. Our job is to seek and find the unique contribution that we came to Earth to make, to find the unique gift that we are intended to give. We are each a particle of Being, specially designed to play our own exceptional role in the ecology of the Whole. In trying with the ego to be exceptional, we have been playing the wrong game. It is a game based wholly on separateness. We need to raise our heads and see that our exceptionalism is to be found not in separateness but in our relation to Wholeness. The Cosmic game is, actually, the only game in town worth playing.

 


 

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