This Saturday follows a similar timetable I have committed to religiously ever since March began: half a day at work is short (albeit sufficient) and it ends with a trip from the hospital to the MRT station carrying a box of our weeks’ worth of recycled paper and cardboard boxes (part of a simple recycling system at our workplace I am immensely proud of and thankful for) to be recycled at the nearest recycling bin. What follows is but an adventure – volunteering at the Little Coders Program with UPstars tutors bringing coding to young children as a means of teaching logic, inspiring learning and inciting curiosity – every lesson introduces to tutors different challenges and accompanying insight. Then, a project recently initiated by my sister and I titled Strong Mind Fit Body has also found its way into my Saturday evenings, now dedicated to project discussion, engagement session or on-the-ground outreach. Saturdays pass quickly until dusk falls upon us and the family is together, that is my favourite part. These exciting moments that make up a single day can easily have different permutations; varying combinations of these very different days make up a month, then a year, then a decade. Keep counting up, it makes an entire life.
The room for exploration with our countless moments easily leads us to believe that we are special. People say “it is what we make of our moments that make us” – that our actions, attitude and the choices that we make in the small happenings determine our person. When we consider the almost infinite possibilities in what we can do and if every tweak in a small moment can result in our becoming someone different, it is only logical that we are as different from one another as possible. We are different. We are special. And with the passing of time, the culmination of experiences, it seems, we can only become more different from one another and more special in our own way. That is true, but only partially so. I would like to propose that we are more similar than different and it is helpful to remind ourselves once in a while that ‘no, you’re not special’.
Where I work today, I encounter people with an unjustified sense of entitlement often. This is perhaps due to the culture of excessive apologies that the service industry perpetuates, compounded with the tendency to assume that we are so special. Ideas like “you can never understand me” and “you have no idea” convey assumptions that we are too special to be understood completely. We underestimate one another’s capacity for compassion, then create a society that undermines the application of empathy – our ‘Feeling Special Complex’ builds barriers around the bridge to connection even before we try to step foot on it. Our stories that we are so special focus too much on our differences, it crowds out our overwhelming similarities.
Two nights ago, I was privileged to be in the midst of other passionate volunteers at Youth Corps Singapore’s monthly Teh Tarik Sessions. The networking night brings together Youth Corps Members, Aspirants, Aspirant Leaders and staff to a common space to explore possibilities of doing good together in a variety of areas. This month’s Teh Tarik Session brought founder of Geylang Adventures, Cai Yinzhou to the spotlight where he shared the inspiring story of his creating trails in a community that is all too often misunderstood and masked by our negative connotations. The crux of his experience assimilating migrant workers in his neighbourhood lay in focusing on the similarities rather than differences. It was in acknowledging their ‘special’ for their culture and backgrounds, and at the same time, finding the similarities with the local community hidden within this same ‘special’.
In truth, we can have very different stories to tell about our being but when we go back to basics, there are convictions we hold close to heart that are similar to one another. Convictions about equality, integrity, justice; about how to treat each other with respect and how to work hard for what you hope to achieve – these convictions, though derived from very different experiences, reveal our similarities in intentions and understandings. We are not that special.
As we were growing up, our family’s love for us can sometimes convey themselves as subtle reminders that we are special – the “you’re a smart child”, “you are different, you can do it” and the ‘adult conversations’ about their children making competitive comparisons while we sit by the sidelines as exhibits. The intention is assurance, some form of affirmation. Unintentionally, though, it teaches us to see ourselves as different from the rest and to put unnecessary pressure on ourselves to be different. This plays out in a circumstance I find myself in presently. A month on from our ‘A’ Level Results Release, we face the paying the cost of opportunity: opportunity cost. With every decision made to accept, there are decisions made to reject. To pick a leap of faith is to forgo a ‘golden opportunity’ and to make time for one experience is to compromise time for another. The idea that ‘you are special’ makes those choices more difficult because of the looming responsibility to “do justice” to our capacity to be extraordinary. We are lured to be part of the competition that nobody wins, to be “outstanding”, to be special. It is trying to grow into a pair of shoes you don’t know the size of as it changes constantly based on expectations. The idea of ‘special’ is created then validated externally, beyond our own control.
I am not saying there is no place for ‘special’.
Let’s reframe: you’re special for the moments that have made you, but it doesn’t mean we are different. (We are same same but different). Rather than overrate being special, let’s be comfortable that regardless, we are going to be one of the many – the many who study overseas (or locally), the many who decide to study a certain course, the many who land up in certain a career path. Perhaps we can redefine ‘special’: because in the end we may make very similar choices and have very similar moments, the true magic of special will lie in the spirit with which we do what we do, the purpose-driven and passionate disposition we choose to lead our everyday and the intentions we perpetuate. If we may be special, let us be special in that way.
May our verve make us special.