Not so special: why feeling special can be problematic

At moments in my life, the words “I am a child of God” have touched me with awe and respect for my fellow human beings.  But I have evoked the words far more often to remind myself that I am special and loved.   I don’t know if God intended us to feel special by virtue of being his children (I suspect that he would have preferred us to feel more humble), but I believe that is what those words mean to many children (and former children) who are immersed in a religious and secular culture that assures us that we are all special, capable, and full of unlimited potential.  It is, after all, a very gratifying idea.  I am just not sure that it is a useful one in our secular and spiritual lives.

Ensuring that children have a healthy amount of self-esteem is important, but we now often harbor expectations for ourselves and for our children that are unrealistic.  As much as we might hope that all children have the potential for superior achievement, most of us will turn out to be simply average, whether because of innate limitations or our own choices.   Although this hardly seems like grounds for distress, I am surprised by the number of people who have shared with me a sense of disappointment that they did not or could not accomplish something (often unarticulated) that they deemed better and have wandered from job to job in search of the passion they think must find.  Recently, I heard a psychologist on the radio discuss how many of his patients were upset because they believed they were destined for better, more significant careers than they had reason to expect: why couldn’t they, too, be on American Idol when their teachers said they could be anything?  He went far enough to suggest that the makings of our current financial crisis lie in part in adults who were trained to think about the world in ways that reflect certain popular ideologies rather than realities, and who therefore did not pay attention to facts in the financial sector.  Some obvious political examples also come to mind here.  Although this point of view might be somewhat extreme, I think it express something problematic about our current secular and religious culture that reassures us all of our specialness: that feeling more special than we are leads to bad decisions and disappointed expectations.

But does my belief that God feels that I am special lead me to distorted religious expectations?  Two years ago, when I was reading through nineteenth-century diaries in which mothers wrote about the deaths of their children, I was struck by how many of them viewed religion as an act of sacrificing one’s own will to God’s.  In a period in which death was frequent and humans lacked significant control over nature and disease, it makes sense that they saw sacrifice and obedience as proper religious qualities.  By contrast, I now act with the assumption that if I only did more, then I could resolve many of the natural and social problems that were formerly seen as acts of God.  Rather than seeing religious participation as an act of sacrifice to God’s will, my religious view focuses on how I, as a gifted and special individual, can serve to correct the world’s problems, whether they be in my neighbor’s home or in third-world countries.  To be religious is to fulfill my special potential to be a force for good, while failure to do enough is a problem I am accountable for.

The idea that we are all special beings how can become like God as we make the world a better place is an idea I find deeply appealing.  However, it is also an idea that sometimes leads me to forget about Christ, because it encourages me to think that we have unlimited potential to help the world on our own. When I fail, I typically do not think to ask for Christ’s help, but instead ask myself how I could do better next time.   So has a belief in my special, eternal potential made me overlook my continuing need for God’s presence in my life?

I love the assurance that being a child of God gives me.  But, sometimes I probably need to remember that I am a CHILD of God, not God, who still needs help and who comes with limitations that by no means detract from my worth in His eyes, a worth that is probably only equal to that with which He views everyone else.

Comments

  1. Mark Brown says:

    This is a wonderful post.

    I think the idea that we are children of God can get out of control, as you have suggested, and the indicator that it is out of control is when it engenders a sense of entitlement.

    But for people whose lives are a wreck and who are floundering in bad choices and guilt and who are in a rut so deep they can’t see out of it, the ability to see themselves as God’s offspring can be empowering and miraculous. It helps them lift their sights and improve.

  2. Really great post, Natalie.

    I’ve been disappointed in myself as a special force for good, which might be why I tend, in recent years, to be drawn to more old-school religious expression (heavy on the obedience and sacrifice). I know that for me, “I am a child of God” usually translates to “I am God’s black sheep.” Now, why God’s black sheep should be me and not some cruel murderer, I don’t know–unless it’s that I have difficulty seeing such awful people as children of God. Also, it’s probably narcissism. “As God’s child, I have a special potential to disappoint him.” ;)

    But your thoughts are more interesting than my comment.

  3. StillConfused says:

    I can’t stand that song I Am A Child Of God. It is so freaking slow!

    I don’t really view myself as special, just one of God’s many children or, if you prefer, one of the many participants in the universe. I do spend my time actively making my universe a better place — because that is just how I roll.

  4. Great thoughts Natalie.

    In one episode of The Cosby Show, the son was asking his dad if he could go on a trip to Europe with his class that summer. It cost something like $1,200, but the son said that wasn’t a big deal because “we’re rich.”

    The dad replied by saying something like, “Your mother and I have studied and worked very hard to get where we are today. We are rich. You have nothing.”

    I think that’s a good way of thinking about our status as children of God.

  5. I am failing to see how feeling like a special child of God leads one to forget to involve the Savior in becoming better.

    After all, there is John 3:16 and all that. It is because we are his children that the God sent the Savior and gave his only son.

    Perfectionism may have many causes, but beleiving in our potential isn’t one of them. I’m more inclined to think impatience and pride are.
    Perhaps the root of the problem is mistaking pride for a belief in your own potential. The critical difference is the realization that everyone else also holds that same potential, and rejoicing in that fact.

  6. Excellent post.

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Wonderful.

  8. I think it is very important to try to raise children who don’t feel that sense of entitlement, like the world revolves around them, etc. I will never tell my children they can do anything. It’s ridiculous.
    I try not to spoil my children.
    It is hard though. The self-esteem obsession in our country is prevasive.

  9. I think the specialness factor also gets us into trouble because you’re not special if everyone is special, right? I mean, someone(s) out there are not special, otherwise how do you know? what can you compare yourself to? Then, like you say, the pressure to do good, to serve the world is even greater because those unspecial people sure aren’t gonna do it.

    Certainly there are a few people that are different, exceptional in some way or another. But most likely none of them are us.

    And by that I mean, you’re all special. (please be nice to me)

  10. I think you are talking about recognizing our potential as an extension of His grace. It’s a fine line, but I would never ask for the alternative.

  11. Great post.

    It has struck me that our expectations have changed regarding what it means to feel blessed. I’ve been reading some 18th century autobiography, and I’m struck by how frequently people suddenly die. Men and women go through several spouses, children die one after the other, not to mention the frequency of death related to childbirth. For most of us in the developed world, survival is no longer ‘special.’ We want more.

  12. I enjoyed your post Natalie.

    Reminds me of the Gordon B. Hinkley Quote.

    “Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just like people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is just like an old time rail journey … delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

    Every family has one or more of the dreamer types who is waiting for their exceptionalism to pay off, traipsing from scheme to scheme and never quite figuring out that other people’s successes are the result of work and discipline.

    I also wonder how many people have led themselves right out of the Church, their inability to submit their will combined with an unquestioned confidence in their own ideas and opinions. It is the impression that I get from most who leave the Church but don’t leave it alone. The crux is not necessarily a disagreement with a doctrine and/or a policy but a dissatisfaction with the degree to which their own ideas are agreed with.

  13. and never quite figuring out that other people’s successes are the result of work and discipline

    and luck.

  14. Natalie, While I agree with your description of the down-side of universal exceptionalism, I would add that it is a decidedly American trait. It is what has driven innovation, science, and the American dominance of culture around the world.

    By abandoning the “Si Dios Quiere” approach of our neighbors, we have excelled.

    However, as you suggest, this exceptionalism needs to have a firm foundation. If we praise our children and each other at times of mediocrity then we are dooming them to disillusionment and failure. If we buy a millionaire’s house on fifty-thousandaire’s salary we’re doomed to foreclosure.

    We excel when we strive for the rung that is just out of current reach.

  15. and luck.

    Outliers.

    Becoming the person who has successful relationships with their spouse/children/parents, graciousness, empathy, testimony, this is not something to be left to luck. If you want these things and the success that accompanies them you better come up with a plan and follow through on it.

    There is not a personality lottery and in my experience, five years of neglect takes more than five years of effort to nurture back to health.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    MAC, luck probably has more to do with it than you’re willing to think.

  17. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I believe that when we tell our children that they are a Child of God, we should immediately follow that with “…and so is everyone else”. Feeling as though you are special often leads to feelings of entitlement. Ironically, this often leads people to feel less blessed. That which they have is not the result of blessings so much as it is theirs as a right. We are not special, and are no more deserving than so many others. When I recognize that my beliefs, my efforts, my intellect, or even my opportunities do not entitle me to any more than anyone else, I am forced to recognize that I have been truly blessed. I don’t deserve more than others, yet there are many who are much worse-off than myself. Thinking I am special would be the opposite of humility.

    Now, we try to teach our children that they are not special but, alas, they have grandparents.

  18. #15:

    I think why Norbert includes luck is because if hardwork and discipline are all that’s necessary, then wouldn’t that be one of those things that would allow people to think that *they* are purely the reasons for their success?

    Luck/blessings/whatever are an acknowledgment that sometimes…there’s someone else involved.

    Unless, you don’t buy that.

  19. Outliers

    David Brooks called and wants his column back:

    Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers.

  20. I am not saying that hardwork and discipline are the guarantors for the positive, but that they are a much stronger insurance against the negative than relying on luck.

    #19

    David Brooks called and wants his column back

    Based on a single word? Hardly rises to the level of plagiarism. I hadn’t read it, but in most cases I would consider a comparison to David Brooks a compliment, thank you.

  21. Matthew Chapman says:

    I have always felt about “I am a child of God” as I think Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew, and Prince Edward must feel about being members of the Royal Family: enormous privilege, enormous responsibility, a potential future of unbelievably enormous possibility, and STOP ACTING THAT WAY.

  22. MAC, it would be foolish to rely on luck — but it would be equally foolish to believe that all success was the result of one’s own efforts, or the lack of success was a sure sign of personal weakness.

  23. ‘Twas meant in good fun, MAC.

  24. Nice post.

    I think the problems begin when ‘You are a child of God’ is conflated with ‘You are chosen’ or ‘You had what it takes to be born as a member of the church in this dispensation’ or ‘You were a general in the war in heaven’…

    The next time I hear one of these phrases I am going to SCREAM.

    *end of vent*

  25. I think I understand what you mean by this post but I don’t think it’s any reason to teach our children (at least in the United States) that they can do anything, i.e. no doors are closed to them by virtue of their birth or station. Of course the probability is very low that a given child will grow up to be a Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, or a President of the United States, a Senator, a CEO or nobel prize winning scientist, a famous actor/actress etc. — and yet, there are thousands, actually tens or hundreds of thousands, of such individuals, and they were all kids once.

    At any rate, my observation is that our culture of positive reinforcement and encouragement of children in the United States gives them a healthier childhood and unlocks more potential than some other approaches likely would.

    As to how “being special” applies specifically to the Gospel, I wonder if the application isn’t actually more in the area of “exceptionalism” wherein one Latter-day Saint or a family of Latter-day Saints, for whatever reason, believes themselves to be exceptional when it comes to orthopraxy.

  26. (And by that I mean, they find themselves to be an exception to a rule and not subject to the guidance that we have been given.)

  27. Also, Natalie, I wonder whether you have considered the possibility that the following sentence from the original post might not be a false dichotomy:

    “When I fail, I typically do not think to ask for Christ’s help, but instead ask myself how I could do better next time.”

    I’ve been thinking about this for a few minutes and can’t figure out how these two are mutually exclusive or even how they could really compete with each other. It seems to me that one seeks Christ’s help and tries to do better next time.

  28. Sorry for the multiple comments. I just wanted to say also that I do understand the impetus behind the post but for me it points more toward Old Testament realities: we need to be open to the idea that God, although he surely loves each of us, is not too fussed about our individual comfort or even our lives. Corporate accountability seems to be a reality to God and in a famine the believers starve (almost) just the same as the wicked. The “almost” is interjected because we believe in God’s tender mercies and that he will succor his people. However, the experiences of our own ancestors teach us that such succor will not necessarily include preventing us from having frostbite destroy our limbs or the elements kill our children or the road to bloody our feet. If our ancestors were mobbed and pillaged and endured forced migration in winter, why should we think that God cares about the health of our 401(k)s?

  29. Let’s not measure God’s level of caring by God’s level of intervention.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    Kathy, why not? Wouldn’t we measure the level of caring by a parent at least partially by the level of their participation in their children’s lives?

  31. Would you be doing what you should as a parent if you followed your child everywhere, scaring the bullies away and carrying him up every flight of stairs and doing his math homework for him and insisting that he be made captain of the baseball team? A lot of what we sometimes expect God to do for us, and cry about when He doesn’t, are the cosmic equivalents of that harmful helicoptering.

  32. Ooh very good thought, Ardis. I am printing this one out and putting it on the wall. Me likey. It’s true that many of us (me included!) often expect God to violate the concept of free agency at every instance of a lost keyring…

  33. Love the last comments by Kathryn and Ardis. In general, I think we often succumb to exactly these misconceptions- we tend to recognize God’s love according to perceived blessings but not as much in adversity. We tend to overindulge our children and expect God to do the same for us. I think it is a “can’t see the forest for the trees” type of thing- perhaps too often we are short sighted, or maybe these are just my weaknesses….

  34. Steve, participation and intervention are not the same thing.

    Good parents intervene only when it will truly benefit the child, big-picture style. A deliberate choice to not intervene in other circumstances doesn’t mean they don’t care about what’s happening to their kid–in fact it means the exact opposite.

    We can’t gauge God’s participation in our lives by the extent of his intervention. I believe his participation is constant, although we’re often oblivious to it.

  35. well said, Ardis.

  36. Steve Evans says:

    If I don’t draw these fine nuggets of gold out of you lot, who will? You should all thank me.

  37. Totally.

  38. For me, the trouble is not knowing what I should do to be a better parent, it’s actually learning to not “react” to situations but to actually choose my responses/actions based on what is best for my children. I might have it down by the time I have grandchildren….

  39. Good parents intervene only when it will truly benefit the child, big-picture style.

    It sounds like good parents are omniscient, or at least capable of seeing the results of their intervention in the future. An extraordinary gift indeed.

  40. Fine, Peter. “When they think it will truly benefit the child.” Of course, the particular parent we’ve been talking about is indeed extraordinarily gifted.

  41. And the issue, I believe, is that as imperfect parents, we sometimes (often?) do what is expedient for our children’s short-term comfort but not necessarily for long-term benefit.

  42. Perhaps one of the most aggravating points regarding this subject for myself is when in EQ or GD, someone will talk of ourselves or our children being saved for the last day as “special warriors” for Christ and so on. Yet, they will in the very next breath speak of members who are “less active” because of their choices and how they have failed the Lord.
    It seems there are those who are so ready to claim the “special heritage” of being members of the Church and yet, ignore actions that are contrary to Christ’s teachings, e.g., motes and beams.

    And it has been my experience as a parent that two of my children chose to step away from the Church more because of such conduct by members.

    Yes, I realize we all need to remember none of us are perfect but when those who offend do so not with no thought because they are “special”, it makes me want to call down brimstone and the words from the BM regarding those saying, “All is well in Zion” when we have such cancers…..

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