by Becky De Oliveira

My brother grew up under my rule. By both birth order and temperament, I ran the show, and my rules were exacting. My ambition was to be the military dictator of a small banana-producing island republic that I would rule with a gentle—but nonetheless iron—fist.

I practiced my skills on my brother with variable results. A generally laid-back and happy person, he went along with most of my schemes, but his very personality was sometimes a source of tension. He simply failed to take things seriously enough. If we were putting on a circus, for instance, he would wander in circles with his arms spread out—flying like Dumbo when his designated task was contortion. When the job was to constructan Indian village from woven grass, my brother would languish after just a few minutes, well before we’d even finished the outer wall that would protect the village from hostile neighboring tribes.

One summer when I was perhaps seven and he was about four, I organized a Regional Dog Show in the basement—the region in question being, apparently, our house. We had no actual dogs, so we used stuffed toys. I built pedestals for my dogs and arranged them first in alphabetical order and then from largest to smallest when I disliked the visual effect alphabetical order created. There was a dachshund, a Scottish terrier, a poodle, and a couple of others. I brushed each one carefully to make sure it looked its best. Bows were placed on heads. Tails were in some cases braided. The dogs were sprayed with my father’s Old Spice cologne. My brother, in spite of my constant nagging, seemed unable to get his dogs together. “Where are your dogs?” I banged away every two minutes or so. “The show is about to start!” This, I said, as if the time were dictated by an unseen authority figure.

At the last moment, my brother delivered his single entry. It was not a dog. It was what I will loosely term a “Valentines animal”—one of those stuffed toys that are roughly similar to an animal but not to any specific type and that are red and white and covered with hearts. This is not a color scheme or pattern that the careful observer will find replicated in nature. Obviously I was annoyed at his flagrant disregard for the dignity of the occasion, but I was also secretly pleased that my domination of the dog show was assured. There would be no last-minute upset, no appearance of a formerly unknown and splendid dog to steal my thunder.

Of course I hadn’t counted on my mother—the designated judge—and her boundless treachery. After a cursory stroll along the aisle, she took her place under the specially created banner stating “Regional Dog Show Champion” spelled out in glittery bubble letters and announced that the championship would go to the Valentine animal, which, if memory serves me correctly, did not even have a name. “What?” I shrieked, rising to my feet in protest and stamping one fuzzy-slippered foot on the orange shag carpet of our basement. “Forget the mangy look of the thing and the fact that it’s lying on its side. That’s not even a dog. How can something win a dog showwhen it’s not even a dog?”

Mom’s a little hazy on the details—the dog show has not featured as dominantly in her memory as it has in mine—but her explanation is that she was “probably” trying to make my brother feel better. “You were older,” she said, “and so you were better at everything. You rigged all the games and contests so that they played to your skills!”

The real truth is that she liked that “dog.” She found its appearance in an otherwise stilted and rather boring dog show refreshing.My brother’s flagrant action in tossing a shabby non-dog into the midst of this sterile environment was actually a work of—sort of—genius. It doesn’t always matter how hard you tried or how much you cared. Think of how many people have become famous for spectacularly bad performances on televised talent shows. How many famous paintings are denounced by critics who claim they “could have been painted by my cat?”

There are many complaints that children and young people are praised too much for “achievements” they haven’t earned. Everyone has to be a winner, people complain. This leads to narcissism and a sense of entitlement, with kids expecting gold stars for everything they do and responding poorly to critical feedback. This compulsion to put everyone at the same level, critics argue, creates an artificially flat society where those of genuine merit are not distinguished, while the mediocre is elevated to a level it doesn’t deserve. In the animated film The Incredibles,not only are the superheroes forced to pretend to be ordinary people but the villain, angry that some people should be super while he is ordinary, contrives to render the concept of “super” meaningless by providing the means for everyoneto be super. “And when everyone’s super,” he sneers darkly, “no one will be.”

But I kind of think everyone really issuper in their own way. Why not point that out, reward it? Every time I notice something special in another person and tell them about it, I feel this electric thrill that is better even than hearing that I am special. I can do a good thing in the world just by showing up and paying attention. Anne Lamott quotes this from the Jewish Theological Seminary, “A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be part of a great meaning.” The meaning comes when you see with fresh eyes and new appreciation for everything and everyone.

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.