A friend of mine is estranged from his parents. He moved away to escape the constant tension and rarely sees them. It’s made worse because his parents take every opportunity to criticize him and his wife for how they’re raising their children.
Still, every year on Christmas morning he visits his parents, and every year his mother makes his favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict. He’s going again this year.
Yes, he’ll be home for the Hollandaise.
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A perennial question among behavioral biologists and people who have too much time on their hands and too many eggnogs in their systems is what makes humans exceptional. Isaac Asimov tackled this in a short story, Jokester. Its conclusion: Puns are natively and exclusively human. All other humor is an experiment conducted on us by extraterrestrials.
Here in non-fiction-land, humor isn’t a uniquely human trait, but puns undoubtedly are, so score one for Asimov, although when most people ponder what makes humans different, they’re looking for something more elevated than plays on words.
Once upon a time the leading candidates were language and tool use. No more — too many animal species are capable of one, the other, or both.
So instead, consider art.
Tens of thousands of years ago, the Cro-Magnon drew images on the walls of their caves. We humans have evidenced a need to create aesthetically pleasing artifacts ever since, just because we enjoy it. This appears to be unique.
Is art what makes us human? We could do worse.
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Perhaps what makes us exceptional is our need to be exceptional. There is, for example, the ongoing debate about American exceptionalism.
There are two schools of thought. On the one side are those who declare, often in a smug and self-satisfied way, that America is, and by extension all Americans are self-evidently exceptional. Anyone who says otherwise is un-American.
On the other side are those who dourly declare we’re just another country, no better than any other, and maybe worse than most.
Is America exceptional? It’s the wrong question, and when you ask the wrong question, there’s no such thing as a right answer. Shoot at the wrong target and even a bull’s-eye is a complete miss.
The debaters are focused on the past, and the past doesn’t matter, except to help us make a whole new set of mistakes instead of repeating the same old ones, over and over again.
What we should be asking about our country is how we want to be exceptional — what we aspire to in the future. Bragging about or lamenting our history is a waste of time and energy.
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One more thing: Isn’t American exceptionalism shining by reflected light?
For most of us, taking pride in America’s achievements is a lot like being a sports fan whose team has just won the championship. Cheering from the stands is fun (or so I’ve heard; I’m a Cubs fan and haven’t had the pleasure). But it’s something less than an accomplishment.
Seems to me, each of us should be starting with something more personal than this … more personal than what makes humans, our country, our ethnic group, or whatever else we feel an affinity to exceptional.
What each of us should be asking ourselves is how we, personally want to be exceptional — what impact we each want to have on the world and what we’re willing to do to have it.
Want fame? Most of those who have it worked very hard for it. They took a lot of risks along the way, too, because the odds aren’t good and pursuing fame and failing often means a career of taxi-driving or waiting tables.
Want political power? Those who have it mostly worked hard to get it. They learned to be smart in the relationship sense, too. And, they made compromises, many of them uncomfortable to say the least, because those who don’t make them usually become political also-rans.
But in the end, while power and fame are fun, and excellent ways to help your ego inflate, too, they’re paltry things compared to having an impact. Before you disagree, ask yourself who you’d rather have been, looking back from a hundred years in the future, Kim Kardashian or Peter Higgs?
Kim Kardashian and her sisters are, like their predecessors the Gabor sisters, well-known principally for being well-known.
Peter Higgs and his fellow researchers merely upended modern physics with their theory of how mass happens in the universe.
So ask yourself: How do you want to be exceptional? And, for that matter, how exceptional do you want to be?
And, are you willing to make the sacrifices you’ll have to make to get there?
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Not that it’s all that exceptional … you’ll have to decide that for yourself … but there’s still time to sneak a copy of The Moral Hazard of Lime Daiquiris onto your loved one’s Kindle in time for Christmas, if that’s your gift-giving holiday of choice. If you do, I expect they’ll forgive you.
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This is my last column for 2013 — I’m taking the rest of the year off. I hope you enjoy everything about the season, however you choose to celebrate it and whoever you choose to celebrate it with. See you in January.