One of the people who has been a tremendous influence in my life and the lives of so many is the vulnerability and shame researcher, Brene Brown. I had the joy of meeting her and recording her keynote address at a leadership conference with the Fraser Health Authority in 2011 and she is every bit as vibrant and inspiring in person as she is in her TED talks.
Brene Brown talks a lot about the costs of living in a culture of perceived scarcity or scarcity consciousness – where I believe I am never good enough, never have enough, never safe enough or certain enough and I am never special enough. This last one is really profound for me these days. When I am striving to be special or extraordinary, I am trying to be better than other people; I am competing with strangers and even with the people I know and love. I am no longer relating to them as one imperfect but perfectly loveable person to another, on a horizontal axis, but I am looking down or looking up to them from a vertical axis. It involves a shift from power with to power over or power under. I might even cease to see them in their full humanity but rather start thinking of them in objectifying ways, as a help or a hindrance to my sense of specialness.
My desire to set myself apart as special or extraordinary comes at a dear cost: the cost of connection and solidarity with others. It might mean that I cannot show my humanity, my vulnerabilities, or own my mistakes for fear of not coming across as special or extraordinary. Or it might mean that I cannot witness your humanity, your vulnerability or allow you to own your mistakes, too busy am I slotting you into a place either above or below me.
This is not the way I want to relate to others. I want to be with others, side by side, making our way as best we can, opening our hearts to really be seen. As the poet Marge Piercy so beautifully phrases it in her poem “To Be of Use”
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlour generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
So if I am not aiming to be special or extraordinary, am I then choosing to be complacent? Mediocre?
There is a resting space to be found between seeing oneself as special and seeing oneself as unique. We each bring our unique gifts but being unique is not the same as being special. What makes us unique connects us to others and can allow us to be in service to others, and ourselves. Seeing ourselves as special puts us above others – it separates us from others and leaves us isolated. And of course the same is true for seeing others as special.
This is discussed in Dr. Martin Brokenleg‘s beautiful Circle of Courage medicine wheel teachings, as described in this book. Dr. Brokenleg emphasizes the need to experience belonging, mastery, independence (managing oneself and one’s decisions rather than individualism) and generosity.
Where we have gone wrong in the dominant culture is replacing belonging with individualism, mastery with competition, independence with dominance and generosity with accumulation and affluence. So focusing on mastery is a way to counter competition. This makes a lot of sense to me: mastery is about striving to be the best I can be at a chosen pursuit, not to outdo others, but for my own satisfaction. Dr. Brokenleg suggests that mastery along with the sense of independence (or personal power) leads to generosity. And this makes such sense to me. Those people I have met who are not generally competitive and have mastery in their fields are indeed extremely generous. Their sense of mastery calms and grounds them. They have no fear of someone else pursuing what they love but can instead just share the love of it.
I can work with those things that make me unique, develop mastery in those areas and use that alongside, in connection with and in service to others. I can work towards mastery in my chosen areas, but my feet stay on the ground. I can aim to be my unique self and live a life that is vital and alive – an ordinary person, in love with my ordinary life.