There is a whole set of lies that our culture has been systematically telling its children for some time now. We tell them that they are especially beautiful and especially smart and especially talented. We tell them that they can be anything they want to be, that they can do anything they put their minds to do. We tell them that they are extraordinary, that they will do extraordinary things. And, generally speaking, far more often than not, this is nothing but lies.
However beautiful and intelligent and talented they may be, there will almost always be those who have more beauty and more intelligence and more talent, and none of these things will guarantee them success in any case. However much they may put their minds to it, there are some things that they will just not be able to be or do. However much they may believe themselves to be extraordinary, they will almost certainly come up against the fact that they are as ordinary as the next person, better at some things, worse at others, individual and valuable perhaps, but not exceptional. They will come up against the fact that their entire conception of themselves has been based on lies told by their parents and family and teachers and counselors and so on.
Now, we tell them these lies out of the best intentions. We want our children to have good self-esteem, to believe in themselves, to have the confidence to pursue their dreams, but we end up doing exactly the opposite. Our lies give children a grossly unrealistic conception of themselves, and this self-conception begins to disintegrate when they are exposed to a wider world where others are in fact as beautiful and intelligent and talented as they are. They are confronted by the fact that they are not naturally superior to their peers and that they have not developed the disciplines they need to succeed in the world because even their poorest efforts had always been called exceptional, had not required work or effort or discipline or commitment from them. Confronted with this new reality, their self-image is shattered, and they alternate between depression and bravado, between accepting that they are not in fact exceptional and insisting that their true superiority has gone unrecognized. They are trapped in this alternation, immobilized, unable to commit to any direction enough to do the work it would require of them, waiting for the greatness that has been promised them. They cannot be the best, so they will be nothing at all.
There is now the greater part of a generation who occupy this position, a generation who have never been able to face the truth about themselves. There is nothing less acceptable to them than an ordinary life, and they are unwilling to live this ordinary life, though it is the life that they will have to live, one way or another. They came of age in a barrage of superlatives, and any life that is not superlative must be a failure to them, and so they live mostly with failure, still striving to deny this failure at every turn. They keep insisting on the lies that they have been told, keep ignoring the base facts of their lives, keep hoping that their destiny will somehow, miraculously, reassert itself.
They have never been told the truth, that there is no shame in living an ordinary life, in doing ordinary good, in overcoming ordinary evil, in accomplishing ordinary things, just as countless lives have been lived before them. They have never been told the truth, that it is no great failure to fall short of wealth and fame, that it is a far greater failure to fall short of being a moral human being. They have never been told the truth, that the best lived life is one spent, not in exceptional things, but in ordinary things, in being a loving child, spouse, parent, friend, and neighbour. They have never been told the truth, that the life spent serving others brings more joy than the life spent in pursuit of one’s own pleasures and successes.
We must speak truthfully to our children. We must tell them that their value does not depend on their beauty or their intelligence or their talent or their success or their superiority to others, but in the love that they might offer to one another, which is their very humanity. We must praise them when they have done well, certainly, but we must also correct them when they have done wrong and encourage them when they have failed. We must teach them that there is nothing so very ordinary about living the ordinary life, that this is indeed a life worth living, as complex and as full and as rewarding as any other they might choose to live.