My daughter is a freshman in college and one of her assignments was to watch a YouTube video showing a high school graduation address entitled “You Are Not Special.” She watched it and sent the link to us, asking what we thought. Hopefully my reply will be of some interest to any of the 1.7+ million viewers of the video who also happen to read my blog. The link is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4.
“You are not special” was an interesting video. The first thing that we need to do is to define the word special. Dictionary reference.com defines “special” as “of a distinct or particular kind of character” and as “particular, individual or certain”. Judging from his speech, one suspects that he defines “special” as unique.
If that is his definition, then in one sense he is completely wrong; we each have a unique genetic code and unique environment and therefore we are one of a kind.
Perhaps he is instead using “special” as meaning “more valuable or more important than others”. If so, he is on firmer ground. There is no objective way of ranking a person’s importance or value, and so society uses surrogates such as wealth, education, position, etc. People use those surrogates to make themselves feel better. This is related, as he said, to our fear of mortality. Anyone with the slightest insight can see that the universe is vast, our powers are weak, and our lives are short. It is not much of a stretch, even for the most thickheaded, to conclude that we are insignificant and our lives are without meaning.
Unfortunately the prescription that he writes to cure the disease is lacking. Being selfless is truly the best for us, but being selfless for your own benefit is being selfish in the extreme. Climbing a mountain simply for the climb and going to Paris simply to be in Paris rather than to cross them off your list or brag to your friends is the right approach, but if life is meaningless why climb a mountain or go to Paris at all? Because you enjoy it? But is not pleasure just as meaningless as anything else, and why should we do anything for our own happiness anyway? Is this not more selfishness? We find ourselves trapped on a treadmill from which we can never escape, much as Eustace from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader was trapped in the dragon’s skin.
Friedrich Nietzsche understood it, and it drove him mad. Many throughout history have gotten it, and it has driven some to suicide. Within ourselves, and even within our universe, there is no escape from the fact that everything we do is utterly meaningless.
What the graduation speaker did not say, perhaps because he did not know or because it would have been too controversial, is that meaning can only be found outside our universe. Some people, those who want to reject the notion of God, seek meaning in reincarnation and a kind of merger with some kind of impersonal life force that can provide a sort of immortality. There are many troubles with this, but one of the biggest ones is the utter loss of individuality in such systems. If I am reincarnated a thousand or a million times, who am I? If my immaterial and immortal part is lost in a metaphysical soup such as “the Force”, in what sense do “I” exist? If that will be true in the future, in what sense am “I” an individual now?
The only other logical option is that even as I exist as a personal individual in the universe, there exists Another who is a personal individual outside of the universe. If that is the case, then I am a person and an individual now, and will be in the future, because He is. If He made me, and if He made me unique, as we have already established in the first paragraph, then I actually am special as defined above because He made me so.
Note that the Individual outside the Universe did not necessarily make one person more valuable or more important than others, but He did make them unique and therefore special.
The speaker in this graduation speech made some very good points, especially speaking to Americans, who tend to be overindulged and over important in our own minds. Graduates would do well to heed his words, but they will do better to look at the realities behind his words and seek the One who turns meaninglessness and madness into significance and salvation.