05/28/2013 05:20 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

The Trivializing of American Exceptionalism

You don't have to look far in Honduras to see examples of "American exceptionalism". In hundreds of villages, towns, and cities throughout the country, there are volunteers from the United States selflessly giving of themselves to help empower the people of Honduras through a wide range of healthcare, education, nutrition, clean water, micro-credit, and training projects. It is this enthusiastic willingness to help people become truly free and independent that represents the clearest manifestation of U.S. greatness.

It is a shame that some U.S. politicians have turned the idea of American exceptionalism into something small and unworthy by insisting that it means the U.S. is inherently greater than any other nation in the world -- almost as if it were some sort of birthright.

It is akin to religious claims of being "the chosen people of God" or that "our God is the one true God". Or chants of "we are number 1!" at sporting events. There is an unhealthy and silly aspect to it all which does nothing to create a better and more peaceful world.

There is no question that the U.S. has a unique and proud history, and that there are certain ideals and traits such as freedom, equality, individualism, and acceptance of diversity and dissent that tend to be identified more with the U.S. than with other countries and cultures. There is no question that the 20th century was the "American Century" and that the U.S. continues to be the most powerful nation -- both economically and militarily, albeit much less so than before. There is no question that other countries still look to the U.S. for leadership and assistance.

The U.S. is an exceptional nation, but that exceptionality tends to become tarnished whenever U.S. leaders go around talking about it and using it to build themselves up and tear their opponents down.

If you have to beat your chest, pump your fists, wave the flag, and constantly yell out how great, powerful, and wonderful you are, then what you've actually demonstrated is how thoroughly unexceptional (and perhaps even weak) you are. If you deny that some of the things that you've done in the past were wrong -- even criminal -- and refuse to apologize or express remorse, that is extremely unexceptional. If you always seek to justify your actions -- no matter how terrible they may be -- based on self-interest... unexceptional. If you criticize others for not being more like you... yeah, unexceptional.

These are not signs of exceptionalism, but rather arrogance.

Exceptionalism is when you place the interests of others above your own. Being humble is exceptional. It is exceptional when you let others speak, and you listen to them without immediate judgement. It's exceptional to avoid taking credit, hogging the stage, bragging. It is exceptional not to threaten or coerce others with your superior force or vocabulary whenever you don't get your way. It is exceptional to talk to your enemies and forgive those who cause you harm. It is exceptional to always act with civility and grace, especially when someone disagrees with you or insults you.

Exceptionalism is not easy, because it demands that you accept that you are inherently no better or worse than anyone else... That under similar conditions as yours, others might easily succeed and thrive. And under similar conditions as others, you might well fail and struggle. The problem is that we all want to be special and a cut above the next person, institution, or country.

North Americans (from the U.S.) are exceptional people not because of the passport they carry, but because of some of the great things they believe and consistently practice. The more they believe and practice the exceptional stuff, the more exceptional they are. American exceptionalism is not a given. It has to be consistently earned. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.