I have turned nineteen years old. Damn. What do I have to show for it? Well, actually a lot. I’ve learned how to perfect a boiled egg. I know the difference between love and chemicals. I almost write blogs. I’ve been told that I bring people joy. I’m really organized. I can talk at great length on a wide range of topics. Blah blah blah.
But I’m an average guy. Or rather, I do average things every day. I eat breakfast six days of the week. I think pathetic, horrible thoughts. I laugh at unfunny things said by impressive people.I lost a fingernail recently after jamming it up against a garbage bin like a klutz.
I battle the potential of mediocrity every day. Every day I’m fighting to learn, to get better, to do something more than what’s expected. But, this fight is largely internal. It’s buried deep in the deepest caverns of me, and when part of it escapes, it usually comes out awkward or misunderstood. I’ve realized that life isn’t really structured to embrace greatness. In fact, life, as I see it, is ruthlessly against anything that tries to be better than average. And so I’ve reached a point where I want to celebrate authenticity, not greatness, and this is my great existential dilemma.
Let’s begin with a definition. What is mediocrity? Webster’s says it means “not being very good.” But, what about not being very bad? Isn’t that part of it too? I think most of us view mediocrity as not been very good; the negative connotation seems to take precedence. We have synonyms like:
All of those synonyms are pretty negative. We’re talking about a C-average here — which is still a passing grade. Technically, to be middling means you’re better than 50% of the population. What about ordinary? That is not that bad. “Ordinary” should be a compliment in a way. Ordinary people are very people-like. Sometimes vanilla is all you want, right? But really, no one wants to be called ordinary.
Mediocrity is the perception of someone not measuring up to the highest standards. It’s an ancient term, coming from the Latin meaning, “the mountain of middle height.” There were taller mountains and shorter mountains. Mediocre is the one in the middle. It provides the contrast for the tall and short ones. Mediocre is the mountain you gaze at last.
Mediocrity carries with it a tremendous amount of existential baggage. Mediocre is a global term that encapsulates the harrowing reality that most of us fail to live up to the ideal we’ve placed upon ourselves. We all want to be the tallest mountain. Yet, few of us are ever the tallest, outside birthday parties and our mother’s opinion.
The environment? Society. We have great people, the tall mountains, and crappy people, the short mountains, and then we have everyone else. Our concept of greatness is the context for how we measure ourselves. Most guys want to be like Brad Pitt or the coolest person they have ever met. And let’s be honest, those people are pretty awesome. At least, they’re awesome fromour vantage point. Brad Pitt is awesomely handsome and a very good actor. He has the rakish vibe, where he’s both accessible yet mysterious.The coolest guy you ever met? He was pretty cool, he dated the girl you wanted to be with, and he always had fun things to say.
But greatness stems in part from lack of knowledge. By this I mean when we really get to know someone they become… well… less impressive. Greatness is always observed from a distance. Celebrities, athletes, politicians, etc. are all individuals we observe from a distance. We project our desire for our own greatness onto them, and thus they become the fulfillment of greatness. I’m sure if you spent considerable time with Brad Pitt you’d discover he ain’t that great. He might even get on your nerves. The coolest guy you knew? He’s an adult now, with a 9-to-5 job, and he’s slightly getting bald. All of these people are only great in certain ways.
You’ve got to spend time with someone, considerable time, before you figure them out. And usually, what you discover is that no one is quite as awesome as you originally imagined them to be. They find the most unique ways of failing you, and at some point, you’re pressed to either embrace the fact that they didn’t measure up to what you first wanted, or you send them on their way.
I’ve spent a good deal of time with myself. Nineteen years. I think that’s enough time to have formed a good opinion. And guess what? I don’t quite fit the mythology I made up for myself in my younger years. I’m a different person than what I had originally intended.
This all adds up to a general and sustained feeling that the human experience is a mediocre experience. Humans are just mediocre kinds of things. It’s why we all love blooper reels and funny home videos. We rave over celebrity gossip and political folly because we feel inspired to know the great ones suck too. We measure and analyze and calculate and survey their lives. The visible is always so easy to break apart. Those that make the visible the best part of them always fall the hardest. The athletes and their bodies, the celebrities and their pretty faces, the politicians and their fancy words — me and the way I’m seen by everyone else.
Yet, I’m convinced that the best part of me is immeasurable. It can’t be demonstrated. This means the rest of me, the visible, is susceptible to human judgement. The visible and the invisible are always waging war. The visible requires names, terms, logos, stereotypes — a particular version. And I don’t fit well into those. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” And not necessarily contradiction in the logical sense, but more so as an element of my social being. I am different things to different people. If someone were able to sum me up in my entirety — every part, every facet, every principle and particle that makes me who I am—I wouldn’t make any sense. I am a paradox.
I’ve realized in the twilight hour of my twenties that the best I can be is different than what I had first imagined — and that realization is the best part of me. What I had once imagined was really a fiction, and now, as I see things more clearly, I feel better about myself than ever. The “greatness” I had envisioned for myself was determined by a lack of self-knowledge; a kind of existential distance. This realization colors me deeply and it is also a tremendous freedom. It’s the final straw plucked, rather than placed, on a mind that has for years been susceptible to the worst kinds of idealism and idolatry.
Mediocrity realized, rather than fought, is peace. Embracing the parts of me that don’t quite fit — the parts that don’t quite sparkle — is one of the most precious freedoms I know. Not that I’m a sadist. Not that I have some hook on failure. Simply, I’m trying to see as straight and clear as possible. To be me in my own skin, me in my own clothes, me in my own words and thoughts and interactions. And guess what? I’m not always the greatest, and that’s fantastic. My averageness is the true quality of who I am, not the moments when I amaze and astound. It’s the prose, not the poetry, that forms the narrative of my self-awarness. The millions and millions of blunt edges and foggy details that collaborate daily to produce the outcome of my mediocre persona. I rejoice in the pleasure of being my own kind of ordinary. I’m convinced that no one can be spectacular if they have not first celebrated their own shortcomings, both publicly and privately.
So I suppose my twenties will in fact be a kind of straightening, of the self that is. I’m going to be more aligned with the true center of who I am, the mediocre-me, as it were, the self I’ve feared and tended to look at last. I’m sure the logos, and names, and forms will pull me away from time to time, but their hold will be lessened by a new kind of weight: