How About Returning to Modesty?

Young pop stars have figured out that the most extreme, bizarre behavior leads to stardom through notoriety.

Young men, finding their inflated self-images don’t match the way their peers and teachers see them, choose to go out in a blaze of glory, substituting personal infamy – and fame – for personal responsibility.

Another young man, indulged and taught to listen to himself instead of authority his whole life, betrays his oath and walks away from military responsibility, becoming a captive and pawn in an international game. Another man, indulged and praised for his entire life, trades dangerous terrorists purchased for more than fifty American lives for this single dishonorable prisoner.

Things are upside-down. American leaders and schoolchildren alike don’t seem to understand values or the importance of personal integrity. The public story becomes all about random individuals – lumping the non-starring individuals into a sort of Greek chorus, disposable and replaceable. Never mind that they could just as easily have been chosen in the lottery of public esteem.

We have gone from the “Me Generation” to the “Look At Me Generation.” A combination of factors from overly permissive parenting that regards those singleton children as “special snowflakes” to the rise of reality television, a phenomenon in which the most trite and ordinary and even unpleasant person can be a star, have driven a perfect storm of selfishness. While not every young person today regards the world as an audience for his or her special “me” show, far too many of them do.

The symptoms of the disease of selfishness are everywhere. Everyone wants to be the special one, the standout, even though the reality is that most people are ordinary inside, and this has led to an obsession with being extreme in appearance or action. Trying to be an iconoclast, unfortunately, results for most people in just being weird, not exceptional or admirable. Blend this drive with normal teenage impulsiveness, and you get a lot of young people engaging in risky behaviors or endangering others – the knockout game, dangerous selfies, sexual experimentation that goes overboard.

This has deeper consequences for the community as a whole. People who turn inward for meaning are less likely to be fully invested in their communities – selfishness becomes the norm. We end up without enough ordinary people, people with modest goals of having a home and children and love, quiet fulfilling lives. When everyone’s a special snowflake, there is no one left to keep the world running.

“Look at Me” kids make terrible soldiers, teachers, entrepreneurs, parents. They choose goals that are unattainable for their level of talent or expertise. When they aren’t successful right away, they break, self-medicating or finding other extreme ways of getting attention. They no longer understand that losing is part of the game too, that you learn more from mistakes than from doing things right. And they want far more from their communities than they are willing to give.

The odd contradiction in special-snowflakism is that, in making everything all about the self, the individual cedes power over his or her happiness to everyone else. Each snowflake must have an audience, and like a spoiled child, they’ll get that audience by being bad if they can’t get it by being good. Thuggishness becomes acceptable, pointless risk-taking becomes something to be strived for.

Instead of striving for true happiness in their lives, the Look-at-Mes are settling for a shallow sort of iconoclasm, being different on the surface from everyone else – just like everyone else. Like Fruity Pebbles, they all look different but taste exactly the same.

There’s not much we can do to redeem today’s world from special-snowflakization, other than hoping it is rejected because it has become ordinary and boring. But we can work to preventing this next generation from settling for that hollow, brittle self-satisfaction. We can tell stories featuring characters celebrating ordinariness, showing the strength and power in finding and being one’s authentic self instead of an artificial construct designed to get attention.

Look back at the classical heroes, for instance. One way of identifying the guy who’s going to kill the monster and become the kind is by the fact that he’s ordinary. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins drew from that powerful tradition. King Arthur was a fosterling of unknown parentage, and Lancelot was an orphan. Oedipus was abandoned, the million Jacks and Ivans of fairy tales were foolish or the youngest brother or weak. None were special – except through their choices and courage.

We can inoculate our children and audiences against special-snowflakism by giving them heroes like this to look up to, or heroes that go out, do special and brave things – then choose to return to an ordinary life. This once was the attraction of superheroes, the idea that Superman could be this ordinary Clark Kent guy on the outside but have the big red S underneath all his clothes. (Today’s snowflakes are the opposite, Superman on the outside but Kent on the inside.)

At the same time, we need to express that there is nothing WRONG with being unique – if it is authentic. Specialness isn’t a virtue – it is only a trait, one of many that makes a person who they are. When you settle for being different just like everyone else, you are not being courageous – you are cheating yourself of learning who you are, of seeking out and using the qualities and achievements that make you unique and ordinary at the same time.

Humility, modesty, ordinariness – these quaint old virtues have become special by dint of being rejected. It is time to rediscover and embrace them.