Striving Towards Exceptionalism

It seems we’re a bit confused.

On the one hand, we hail mastery, exalting those who succeed and championing their labor, skill and sheer determination. And on the other hand, we rail against it, questioning the myth of expertise and encouraging others (and ourselves) to be in the moment and to be present to the bliss–trusting that our dreams are on their way.

I worry we’re leaning too much towards the latter and abandoning the former. Or that we’ve somehow gone too far off track and missed the point. Ambition is rooted in the desire to do better, to advance oneself. I fear that an overemphasis on our feelings and personal perspective can keep us spinning on a hamster wheel, forever mired in the self, unable to integrate the more challenging aspects of life.

In the beginning I gravitated to the spiritual community out of a longing and desire to better my circumstances. I knew that I was the problem, that I was arresting my own progress. But I was also seeking acceptance, to be seen for nothing more than a soul, no better, no worse.

The problem with this, of course, is that humans are wired for judgment. And that judgment– that need to categorize and label– has to express itself in some way. What I discovered was something fascinating: spiritual ambition.

It’s funny if you think about it. But it speaks to the very human need to achieve, to succeed, to do better. The details and context may change, but the drive remains the same.

The question is: Where are we focusing this energy? And who is it serving?

Ambition is not a bad thing. The desire to master a craft, gain a degree, educate oneself and perfect one’s skills is not a bad thing, yet it seems to be getting less and less support from the culture at large. We seem to think things should be easy. We herald stories of overnight success and luck. And while those stories have their place, where is the sense of mastery in things always being easy? Where is the maturation?

No matter your political beliefs, there is no denying that we just elected the least experienced and knowledgeable candidate over the most experienced one. Yes, the reasons why are multifaceted and Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote by almost three million. Still, I think it bears looking into.

How did we get here? The need to believe in magic, the belief that anything is possible. We may have tipped the scales too far.

I love Oprah. But I wonder if the focus on prosperity consciousness, along with the advent of Tony Robbins and Joel Osteen isn’t part of the problem.

The “you’ll see it when you believe it” conversation never seems to be about mastering a new skill or overcoming long held fears. Rather, it’s about things and stuff and acquisition and money. How did the spiritual movement turn into a giant ask– especially when true self esteem is developed through grit and the willingness and tenacity to overcome?

What are we valuing? Ourselves, it seems. And accumulation that runs amok.

If I think I’m great at something, does it matter if I’m not? Is our inner experience of ourselves really the most important thing? Are my manifestations or lack thereof an indication of the level of my spiritual growth?

These questions are not meant to call into question our worthiness. They’re meant to call attention to an increasing cultural emphasis on the self. We can have a firm sense of self-esteem and still see a need to evolve, learn and grow. In fact, the understanding of this is a sure sign of solid self-esteem. One can hold two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time.

Spiritual and physical reality do not have to be in conflict. They can serve one another. We can believe in miracles and grace and still believe in striving for detailed excellence. We can consider ourselves worthy while still in recognition that we may not get everything we want the minute we want it. We can recognize that our perception shapes our reality. We can trust our gut and find substantive information in data. We can surrender to the mystery and still take inspired action. We can blend faith and science.

Maybe I’m being reactive. I’ll admit, I have been party to binary thinking. But since the election I’ve been reflecting on these things, and that’s okay. I have a feeling I’m not alone.

Perhaps now is the time for collective self-reflection.

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