White Heron Sangha

Winter 2019-20

Exceptionalism

by Alice Reinheimer


“We’re number one!”
“Our family is the best!”
“We live in the greatest nation!”

All of these phrases share one thing in common; they promote exceptionalism.  By exceptionalism, I mean the perception or belief that a particular group or organization is in some way extraordinary or unique and because of this, in some way superior.  People often believe their religion to be exceptional - the only way to God, heaven, enlightenment.  It can be the same with sports teams; fans may believe the home team is in some way the best regardless of where they rank at the end of season.

But for many religions, overt exceptionalism is a problem. If part of your religion is a belief in the inherent goodness and equality of all people, it is problematic to admit that you are the best, number one, the greatest, even if you secretly believe you are the most egalitarian.  

And so exceptionalism goes underground, so to speak. Buddhists rarely claim that the Buddha’s way is the Right Way, the One Way, the Only Way. But if we are honest with ourselves, we may find that we secretly hold this claim that we are indeed the only ones on the real Path, since after all, it’s working so well for us. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think it was a pretty good Way.

I have found myself with this unconscious attitude. When I see people who are indeed doing quite well spiritually in another tradition, I have been surprised. And I have surprised myself by being surprised. Where did this attitude of exceptionalism come from? Why have I taken it on? I don’t remember having it when I was more of a seeker.

Exceptionalism is tied to privilege - having a special advantage not enjoyed by everyone. The two tend to go together. American exceptionalism seems to go hand in hand with white privilege as does, perhaps, MAGA (Make America Great Again) with male privilege and white supremacy. Interestingly, in the case of American exceptionalism, one’s belief in it might be gauged by one’s reaction to the statement “Our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others,” as in the Pew Research survey. That feeling of superiority breeds privilege. And privilege unconsciously motivates harmful behavior.

If this is true, that exceptionalism is tied to privilege, what are the implications? Does unstated but implied exceptionalism seem off putting to those who are underprivileged in society? Even though we say we are completely egalitarian, do our actions prove otherwise, especially to those we subconsciously find inferior? To put it more simply, are we so blindly arrogant that no one can stand us? 

This connection - that a seemingly innocuous sense of being exceptional goes along with a sense of privilege - actually helps to unlock some of our unconscious behavior. It is much easier to see where we are willing members of “exceptional” groups than to see where our unconscious superiority perpetuates our privilege. Our exceptionalism perhaps gives us a tip of the iceberg to work on that is connected to our unconscious privilege. 

Exceptionalism is a form of arrogance and pride. Pride is one of the five poisons identified by the Mahayana tradition (the others being ignorance, attachment, aversion and jealousy). With pride or arrogance or conceit, we compare ourselves to others and find our worth based on how we measure up. We can be placing ourselves above others, or in competition with our perceived peers, or can even see ourselves as the best at being the worst. By separating ourselves in this way, we don’t leave room for the richness and nuance of everyone and everything else. Our relationships turn into competitions.

Fortunately the Mahayana teachings also provide us with antidotes to pride. The 14th Dalai Lama has this advice:

“To counter one's arrogance or pride, you need to reflect upon shortcomings in you that can give rise to a sense of humility. For example, you can think about all the things in the world about which you are completely ignorant.Take the sign language interpreter here in front of me. When I look at her and see the complex gestures with which she performs the translation, I haven't a clue what is going on, and to see that is quite a humbling experience. From my own personal experience, whenever I have a little tingling sense of pride, I think of computers. It really calms me down!”

So we can cultivate a sense of humility, perhaps even in situations that don’t involve computers!  

We can also cultivate a sense of seeing how amazing others truly are, rather than projecting our own imaginations onto them. How good the rival team must feel that their hard work paid off and they won the championship! How rich the symbolism and liturgy is in that other religious center down the road! Lama Zopa says that rejoicing in the success of others is an antidote to pride.

Thubten Chodron asks us to reflect that everything that we do, know, or have is due to the effort and kindness of others. She also brings up the interesting point that it is due to low self confidence that we need to resort to pride in the first place. Once we have sufficient confidence in ourselves we can admit what we don’t know and we can begin to learn from other people. 

This last seems to be the most potent antidote. We can begin to allow ourselves to see what we don’t know. Why do we feel like we have to be the best to feel worthwhile? We may feel like our group is exceptional and where did that feeling come from? What is keeping us from rejoicing in everyone’s groups, as well as our own? 


Next article Winter 2019-20

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