20 December 2007

Exceptional, in every way

The Thinking Through My Fingers post which I briefly referenced a couple of days ago was, in turn, followed by another which picked up the thread; that was the subject of a comment from reader Mac, which in turn has brought a further response from TTMF.

Confused? You will be! Each of us has, in turn, taken a different turning for a new purpose. Before I go on, here is a quick chronological index to the story so far:

  1. Thinking Through My Fingers: "Baseball as mirror"
  2. Growlery: "Running hot"
  3. Thinking Through My Fingers: "Competent mediocrity"
  4. Mac: Comment on "Competent Mediocrity"
  5. Thinking Through My Fingers: "Minor thoughts about self realisation"

Still here?? Good grief, Charlie Brown, you have staying power!

I want to take the thread in a different direction again. In doing so, I use TTMF's and Mac's words only as a springboard, not as a finger pointed at either of them; both, I am sure, would for (for the most part, at least) agree with where I'm going.

Any road up ... Mac makes, and TTMF accepts, the statement that "quite often, the exceptional ... have worked to achieve that status and should be honored for having done so".

It's hard to disagree with that. But consensus hangs upon the words "quite often". I would never deny the value of the exceptional, not dilute the honour due to one who has worked to become so. Indeed, in "Running hot" I said that the exceptional are essential, must be valued, and further more must be so recognised whether they are in conventionally lionised areas of activity or in less socially visible spheres.

There is a difference, though, between valuing the exceptional (which is vital) and valuing only the exceptional (which is fatal).

Beyond that, though, let's move on to those words "quite often" ... and, while we're at it, "exceptional" itself

There are probably many ways in which an individual can be exceptional. Just to take three of them which immediately occur to me, we could list work, chance, and lack of scruple. In reality, they probably don't often occur separately: they are more likely to com in various combinations. My friend the poet (in "Running Hot") certainly works bloody hard ... but that only pays off in exceptional results because he already has the exceptional talent on which to work (but he has excess, rather than lack, of scruples).

If I am born an exceptionally talented ... what shall we say? ... rumble wibbler, let us all by all means celebrate my talent. If I have worked my socks off to become the best rumble wibbler since time began, then by all means let's honour me for my determination and effort. But if I have become world champion rumble wibbler by sabotaging your rumble while you were wibbling it, then I'm an example of a "must win" mentality which leads to running hot ... and am, incidentally, worthy of nothing but pity and/or contempt. I guess what I am saying is that my exceptionality is neither to be praised nor belittled; it is to be valued, but praise or dismissal (or neither) accrue to the route by which it arose.

The word "exceptional" bears some examination, anyway.

Suppose that child A has achieved a level 2 pass in a school subject (we'll assume, here, that 1 is the highest pass grade, 10 the lowest), child B a level 4 pass, and child C no grade at all. Years go by. All three find their way in the world, plough their different furrows. Then there comes a time when all three find that their future progression depends on improving their pass level in that one subject. All three go to an evening class after work, apply themselves, study hard, and after nine months retake the examination. When the results come back, A and B have both achieved a grade 1 while C has managed a grade 5. Which of them is more exceptional in this matter? I would argue that there is a strong case for saying that C takes the prize despite finishing with a lower grade than either of the others already had to start with.

Or, let's take a less hypothetical example. I know of a man who, on retiring at from railway work at age 65, could not read or write. He used his new found leisure time to attend adult literacy classes. He used his hard one literacy to study English literature. He pursued his love of what he found there until he won a university place. At age 95, he was awarded a Ph.D. He is, to my mind, exceptional - but his doctorate neither makes him so nor shows him to be so; being exceptional is what took him along that path, and the doctorate is simply where it happened to take him.

"Winning" is a poor measure of exceptionality. So are trophies, certificates, fame, and many other glittering prizes. And we are very poor at recognising it.

Then again, most people are exceptional - just not in ways that are usually given much notice. Last night I watched the documentary Evicted and saw, amongst others, a man whose family had become homeless through no fault of their own. Throughout months of homelessness he kept his mentally ill wife afloat, his four children in the same school despite 25 mile journeys, the authorities under pressure, himself on track and everybody's courage up, despite many bouts of tearful despair. After all that, he ended up (as far as the rest of the world can see) a man in a rented house with a manual job ... but it is hard to imagine anyone more exceptional. His fourteen year old daughter was, throughout it all, the rock for her younger siblings that her mother couldn't be ... when things were finally sorted out, and they came home safe to harbour, she cracked and became a teenage runaway; is she any less exceptional for that?

To be exceptional is a glorious and wonderful thing. Valuing a particular narrow band of exceptionalities, ignoring the rest, is a tawdry and bottomless missing of the point.

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