This past Friday night, hundreds of young men with natural talent and physical prowess descended upon the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA, hoping and praying they would hear their names announced by a National Hockey League team in the 2012 NHL draft. For all intents and purposes, these athletes are exceptional, they are special.
While the majority of the 211 players drafted will not make the big stage, a few will make an impact and maybe a handful will play a game that will allow them to be a part of the NHL elite. Does this small probability of success mean that the players shouldn’t even try or that they should give up because they are unlikely to be the best, to be special?
The commencement speech David McCullough Jr. made a few weeks ago, the same speech to which Ray Pennings wrote a response on Friday, relates. McCullough was speaking to Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, a school ranked 260th in the entire United States for secondary education. Ironically (perhaps intentionally), Mr. McCullough Jr. was not speaking to just any high school graduating class. He was addressing young men and women that were exceptional in comparison to many of their peers across the country.
His point is important. Not everyone will be an NHL star player, a successful business owner, or a musical prodigy. The problem McCullough is pointing to with his irony is the same problem that has resulted in skyrocketing university entrance rates and a serious lack of the skilled trades workers within Canada. It is a problem of success being badly defined. This idea of success is anchored in material celebrity, with expectations that few of us will ever achieve. It is a lie.
In a culture that finds worth in material means and defines ‘success’ so narrowly, we have lost, been robbed of, the dignity of vocation. Our identity as a person of God, with gifts and abilities, is limited when our aspirations for success are so constricted. Pursuing this ‘specialness’, this success, without relying on God can lead to a narcissistic ego, and the failure to achieve this goal can spiral us into fear and depression.
Contra this, writes Calvin Seerveld, even the fish seller—even his father—”is in full-time service for the Lord, prophet, priest, and king in the fish business.” There is dignity in using our gifts and talents to serve others faithfully and to better the world, no matter how big or small our role is.
Not everyone will be an NHL all-star, and thank God for that. Even the all-star can pervert his or her specialness. And even the all-star kneels and confesses the words of the Westminster Catechism: that the chief end of man “is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.”