Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Passion for Distinction

John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States, once wrote:
"I believe there is no one principle, which predominates in human nature so much in every stage of life, from the cradle to the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as this Passion for Superiority … Every human being compares itself in its own imagination, with every other round about it, and will find some superiority over every other real or imaginary, or it will die of grief and vexation.  I have seen it among boys and girls in school, among lads at college, among practicers at the bar, among the clergy in their associations, among clubs of friends, among the people in town meetings, among members of the House of Representatives, among the grave councilors, on the more solemn Bench of Justice, and in that awfully august body of the Congress, and on many of its committees – and among ladies every where – but I never saw it operate with such keenness, ferocity and fury, as among military officers.  They will go terrible lengths, in their emulations, their envy and revenge, in consequence of it."
 In that passage, Adams calls this particular drive the "Passion for Superiority".  But sometimes he also referred to it as the "Passion for Distinction":
"There is none among them [the passions] more essential or remarkable, than the passion for distinction."
According to Adams, this passion for distinction was,
"a desire to be observed, considered, esteemed, praised, beloved, and admired by his fellows."
 I think that not only was Adams correct, but that this principle explains nearly all of the odd and unusual actions I have taken throughout my whole life.  The flavour of the word "distinction" which Adams used is pretty clear:  it means essentially the same as "superiority".  But I would add another layer of meaning to that.  For me the "passion for distinction" is about being intentionally and decidedly different from all other men.  As the Chocolate Watch Band put it, I'm Not Like Everybody Else:

It explains so much.  It explains why I put those J. C. Whitney torpedo lamps on the C-pillar of my 1972 Dodge Veg-O-Matic.  It explains why, as a public school math teacher, I once swallowed a cricket in class.  It explains why my musical taste runs to obscure psychedelic and garage bands from the 1960s, bands almost nobody knows about.  It may even explain my undying devoted to that quirky branch of Christ's church known as Anglicanism.

I do these things, in large measure, because others do not.

When I am honest about it, I think that I have a huge fear of being ordinary, average, or normal.  I don't think that this is altogether healthy.  But, it does give me a certain drive or resolve, without which much of what I have achieved would have been left undone.


Matt said...

Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing them. I Googled "john adams passion for distinction" and your post was the first thing listed.

What led me to Google that term was a book called "Rescuing Ambition" (by Dave Harvey) that deals with this instinctual motivation of the human heart to aspire to things, make an impact, and to count for something in life. It's helping me sort through questions like: Why is being different so important? And why do I need others to notice and affirm me for it? Etc...

Anyways, just thought I'd comment and tell you that you're not alone in wanting to be different. That sounds kinda weird..."You're not different wor wanting to be different" :) But..you know what I mean.

Matt said...


Anglican Beach Party said...

Thanks, Matt! That is interesting about the Google search.

But, especially, thanks for mentioning the Dave Harvey book. I'd not heard of it, and it sounds as if it might help clarify my thinking on these topics as well.