Be the best that you can be. Familiar admonitions from parents, teachers, superiors, leaders. This certainly makes sense. Who would suggest: be the worst that you can be, or, even, no worse than the person next to you? At graduation exercises we expect to hear this encouragement about being nothing but the best at what we do in life.
However, there is something called: too much of a good thing. And, in this case, it is our American penchant for excellence. It’s like having dessert at every meal, or even nothing but dessert at every meal. Some cabbage or even turnips, once in a while, would be welcome, or, at least, better for us.
There is an epidemic in our current American culture, of superlatives. Perhaps it’s an infection from our exposure to all forms of media, especially the TV adds recommending certain products to our attention, but this has flattened out our language into a one level plateau. It’s up high, but, since everything else is up high, too, we begin to think the altitude at which we find ourselves, to be normal. We are no longer in touch with the lowlands. Our language is caught in one tone or decibel, so that everything comes out: the best, the worst, the highest, the lowest, the funniest, the saddest, the biggest, the smallest, the smartest, the dumbest, the sweetest, the bitterest, the fastest, the slowest, etc. And, then, there’s AWESOME.
How did the suffix “-est” manage to attach itself to so many words in the English language? Whatever happened to “-er”, like taller, smarter, slower, happier, sadder, etc. , or even simple declarative remarks such as: she is pretty, or he is thin? Using superlatives for each remark we make is like over-washing our clothes: we take the color out of clothes that have been washed too much, and they begin to look drab. Chicago has frequently been accused of over-using superlatives in its own self-regard because, as “second city” (to New York), it has an inferiority complex which it tries to combat by using inflated language about itself, such as having the tallest building in the western world.
This tendency, so we are told, has entered into our school academic programs and the grading/scoring systems used by many teachers in recent times. For a student to receive a “B” is the equivalent of what a “D” used to be, or, an 85 is the same as a 70 from earlier years. This can develop an unrealistic assessment about ourselves, our talents and our abilities, and ill prepares us for more competitive situations lying in wait for us. Thankfully, in the Catholic tradition, we have a purgatory to mediate the extremes of heaven and hell. But we have lost limbo as a possibility for those who never lived long enough to enter the combat of life.
How does humility work in a situation where we’re all equally endowed and equipped? Superlatives generate inflation, which is a false enlargement of whatever currency we are using. In the financial system, inflation causes more and more money to be printed to purchase the same items that in a pre-inflation era could be obtained for a smaller amount of currency. Inflation eats away at the purchasing value of a ten dollar bill so that it no longer secures three loaves of bread for us, but only two. The result is: we lose esteem for our money. It no longer secures for us the things we want.
So, when superlatives infiltrate too many niches and crannies of our life, we lose an accurate assessment of things, including ourselves, thinking we are better than we really are. We tend to put out less effort to achieve tasks and goals, since we are doing so well so easily, and set ourselves up for a crushing defeat somewhere down the line. We need to launder our language so that it reflects the situation as it really is. We don’t call the situation described here “lying”, probably because it is not a product of our own “evil” ways. It’s “in the air”, and we have absorbed it unconsciously, and so, without fault. But not without penalty, sometime in the future.