Special doesn’t mean good and it doesn’t mean unique.
Some moments are always special: weddings, new homes, first days, birthday parties.
These are special regardless of whether they’re in a fancy hall or under a bridge. And trying too hard to make these special always has the opposite effect.
Some things are special because they mean something to us: a song, artwork, clothing, photos. People have to find that kind of special for themselves.
Most things are considered special because they do something new or better: bike tires that don’t puncture or cars that drive themselves or people that run very fast.
This is a special that everyone can achieve, but it takes a lot of hard work and help from other people; even then, it’s not guaranteed.
The final kind of special is what we call Quality. It’s the kind of special that you feel when you pick up a hand-made instrument or use a very cleverly designed tool—made with love and care.
That’s the special we can all achieve: turning up consistently and investing our time making the best and most useful things we can.
Because, sadly, that’s not very common at all.
It’s not like anyone enjoys getting punched in the face.
But if you’re going outside, there’s always the risk that some asshole will come along and clobber you.
That doesn’t mean you should stay inside all the time either. There’s always the risk that your house catches fire.
Risk is part of life.
It’s the same if you want to do or make anything interesting or different. Some people aren’t going to like it, no matter what you do.
My mum loves this quote from the film Zorba the Greek that I keep thinking about: “Life is trouble. Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
Life is a thrilling battle with a very definite end.
May as well go down swinging.
In 1945, a decorated Captain in the Red Army wrote a letter that destroyed his life.
As the war ended, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s battle with the USSR began.
He spent eight years in the GULAG, writing without pen or paper. After his release, Alek continued writing secretly.
When he published a story about life in the slave camps, Russia made him a famous writer for a while. But then the regime changed its mind and began destroying his work.
Alek wrote feverishly in secret, spreading his words with friends of friends across borders.
In 1970 those words won him a Nobel Prize. Then a year later, the KGB tried to kill him. So Alek smuggled his most dangerous words out of the country and published them worldwide.
The USSR told him he wasn’t Russian anymore and exiled him. But it was too late.
His words had unveiled the brutality of the regime.
And Alek kept writing until the USSR collapsed completely.
Shortly after, he got told he was Russian again and could return. After a little while, he did. And after his death in 2008, The Gulag Archipelago became required reading in Russian schools.
To show words can be very dangerous indeed.
Often, it takes a lot less than we think.
We don’t need a million dollars to be rich.
We don’t need to run an ultra-marathon to be a runner.
Planting one tree is enough to start a forest.
And fifty words are enough to be a writer.
Back when death was cheap and disease was rife, a young man wrote a poem about persistence that still rings through our language today.
Like all the best poetry, it’s simple and yet it sings with wisdom.
The wisdom comes from countless generations of people who had no choice but to “keep a-pluggin’ away” when there was little hope. When the only success and the only certainty of respite came from a clean death.
When the clouds have rolled away,
There will come a brighter day
All your labor to repay,
Keep a-plugging away.
Paul Laurence Dunbar published a dozen books of poetry, four books of short stories, four novels, lyrics for a musical, and a play before he died of tuberculosis aged 33.