The Blessedness of Being Average
(Originally published 3/2/15)
“Is it enough to love? Is it enough to breathe?...Is it enough to die? Somebody save my life. I'd rather be anything but ordinary, please.”--From the Avril Lavigne song, Anything But Ordinary.
A lot of people feel this way. I used to feel this way. The one thing I couldn’t bear to have was an ordinary life. I felt I was made for something more, something extraordinary. I had an inflated sense of self, due to equal parts innate pride, a really small pond to swim in, and lots of positive affirmation from my parents and others. I thought I was destined for greatness, or at least for above-average-ness.
Then life happened. My pond became a lake, and my lake became an ocean. I received less and less affirmation for my once-imagined extraordinary talents. I discovered a whole world of “better-than-me’s”, and was effectively cut down to size. How did I react to this awakening to my ordinariness? Well, at first I denied it. “Those people aren’t really better, they just had more opportunities.” “I could do what they’re doing, if I just had more time to devote to it.” And so on. But after awhile, I realized I would be foolish to deny it any longer. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but I had to admit that I was indeed average. Average thinker, average singer, average writer, average beauty, average (to below average) athlete, average parent, average wife, average Christian.
But the longer I’m alive, the more this realization has turned from bitter to sweet. And no, this isn’t just self-protection, or me making lemonade out of lemons. I think the reason I’ve grown to see average-ness as a blessing is because I’ve seen extraordinary people make messes out of their lives. Too much affirmation has turned them into egomaniacs. Too much influence has turned them into power hungry abusers. Too much beauty has either made them crazed for attention or unable to have true connections. Too much success has made them lonely or greedy. Above-average-ness can make for an isolated, unhappy, meaningless life. I do believe I feel sorry for people who are extraordinary.
Those are the downsides of being above average. But, how about the positive benefits of ordinariness? Here’s what I’ve gained from being average.
An appreciation for gifts that are different from or exceed my own.
The ability to collaborate and learn from other people’s ideas.
Humility that is born out of seeing myself as part of (not above) this amazing human race.
Empathy for weakness in others because I see it in myself.
Healthy self confidence that comes not from being “better” at something than someone else, but from seeing how my gifts benefit the collective.
These are some of the many gifts of being average. And, I daresay I couldn’t have learned them if I was extraordinary.
Ok, let me stop right here and say (because I know you are all thinking this) that everyone is extraordinary in their own way. We all have a contribution to society that we were created to make. But let’s face it. Only 1% will become the next Picasso, or Joan Crawford, or Michael Jordan, or Einstein, or Beethoven, or Kim Kardashian. (That was a joke.) There is a very, very high likelihood that nobody reading this blog, and none of your children will be truly exceptional. But, that’s OK. In fact, it’s great. Because you have a greater chance of living a happy, meaningful, virtuous life if you’re not in that one percent.
Speaking of children, we need to stop telling our children to just “Follow your dreams,” or “You can be anything you want to be,” and “You are über talented, pretty, smart, etc.” Contrary to the desired affect (building self confidence), studies show that kids who are only affirmed tend to risk less, give up too quickly, expect success to be handed them on a silver platter, and sometimes fall into deep depression when they discover they ain’t as cute and smart and talented as they thought they were. (Read Nurture Shock for more!) PLUS, if you’re trying to raise kids who love Jesus, filling them with an ethos of comparison and competition will not make them better Jesus-followers.
I know what you’re going to say next. Shouldn’t we all be striving to be the best we can be? Is ambition bad? Isn’t competition a good driver? Yes and no. There’s a fine line between wanting to be your best and wanting to be the best. There are good motives for self-improvement and bad ones. No, I don’t think every form of competition is evil. But using competition to prove your value is dangerous for your soul. I have to be really careful (and I don’t always get it right!) that I don’t overtly or covertly send my kids the message, “You should be working hard to be the best student in your class, or the best player on your basketball team”. But rather, “You should be working hard to be the best student you can be, or the best basketball player you can be to help your team.”
But, wow, is this hard! I’m not going to lie. I want my kids to get the best score in the class on their math tests. I want my kids to have the best looking science project. I want my kids to score the most goals on their soccer teams. And, because I’m a normal parent, I think my kids are WAY above average. (and better than all of your kids) This is why I don’t fault my parents for giving me a false sense of my greatness. It is so easy to do! But, I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not doing my kids any favors by allowing them to bypass something they might not succeed at, or by praising them for mediocre effort, or by criticizing them for not measuring up to their peers. I need to have a measuring stick for them, but NOT one that compares them to the kids around them, but to their own potential.
The Oscar nominated film Whiplash is about a music teacher who used shame and competition to motivate his students to be the best. His goal was to break kids down in order to make them fight their way tooth and nail to the top of the pile. It worked for some. They did indeed rise to the top and become the best jazz musicians in the world. But, at what cost? Lost friendships due to demanding practice schedules, arrogance and disdain for weakness due to the immense effort to make it to the top, shame and self loathing when their efforts didn’t result in greatness. The main character, for example, lost his girlfriend, ostracized his family, practiced until he bled, and almost lost his career when he insisted on playing in a competition even with a broken bloody finger from a car accident. I kept asking myself, “Why? Why would anyone put themselves through that? What is so great about being at the top?” But, I know the answer to that, and so do you. The climb to the top is rewarded with alluring accolades, respect, wealth, bragging rights. But in the end, I know – because I’ve seen a thousand examples – your quest to be the best will not lead to the happiness you desired. It is better to live an ordinary life, loving God and loving people, using your talents to better your world, and pitying those who believe averageness is repulsive.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8