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In defence of ordinariness

Because it’s great to be okay     

Words & images © Paul Ransom

The voice over guy proclaims it as if it were unquestionably true. “We can all achieve greatness.” Stripping out the marketing overlay and warm/cuddly affirmations, this is clearly false. Just as there is average ice-cream and so-so television, there are ‘ordinary’ people. Not bad, idiotic or lazy. Nor especially deficient, immoral or vicious. But not genius or leadership material. Basically, most of us.

However, in much of the contemporary West, this is not good enough. The one thing we must never be is ordinary, or not sufficiently inspiring or entertaining. Instead, we must relentlessly aspire and self-improve. Wealth and power. Success and status. Be a good role model. Shift the needle. Fight the good fight. Become an awakened super being. And if you really want to cash in, be good looking.

However, the thing about all this sexy greatness is that, mostly, it isn’t that great. Actually, it’s kinda…average. And, if you can pardon the pun, that’s okay.

Aside from indulging a pedant’s niggle about the meaning of the word greatness – and the implied exceptionalism involved – it is also clear that human smarts, skills and aptitudes, as well as our levels of ambition, determination and strategic nous, vary across the population. If you want a good visual representation of the statistical distribution of these abilities you could do much worse than recalling the famous bell curve.1

None of this is new or startling. In any room there are centres of attention, on any team a number 10, and in any town a psychopath. Sometimes we get to be that person, other times we just want to, but mostly we find ourselves tucked securely out of the spotlight. Buying groceries. Watching TV. Bumbling along. (Insert benefits of relative invisibility.)

Yet, we live in a noisy sea of neon exceptions, and are continually reminded that if only we trained harder or ate better we too could be great.

But hey, don’t we already know plenty of hard working, healthy dieting people who are not CEOs or global thought leaders, and most likely never will be?

Aside from exposing the manipulative lie of the standard meritocratic mantra, what the greatness myth reveals is a curious (and perhaps toxic) form of shared self-loathing. Ordinary is dull. Complacent. Mindless. Ordinary people are sheep asleep. None of us average folk will make it past the door bitch when the Ark casts off – that is, after our genocidally intolerant heavenly father decides we are all a tad too un-great-ful for his2 liking.

While true that the case for general misanthropy has been made stronger by the unfiltered vomit of social media and the countless 24/7 live streaming idiocracies that make up the post-pandemic sludge bath, it remains true that we are being sold down the river by the incessant self-affirming, goal-getting ‘encouragement’ of our corporate approved, cultural life-coaches. For the oft-maligned ordinary person, the mismatch between advertised nirvana and everyday samsara can too easily map out as a sense of letdown. Whether it’s ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘at least I tried,’ settling for the ordinary seems like…settling. Somehow giving up. Coulda, woulda, maybe shoulda. But didn’t. Now what?

So here’s a flip. Let’s start by muting the moralising, judgemental drone of the universal achievement meme and its raft of pathologising pass/fail binaries. However superficially appealing it is to be told that we are all superstars in the making, maybe it is smarter for us to shift our focus to an awareness and appreciation of the mean, the median and the mid-point.

  • Some would argue this represents a loser‘s bargain with mediocrity or that it is an aspirational version of the tragedy of the commons – as in: no worries, someone else can do all the greatness while I spend another afternoon with my leaf blower. However, I would respectfully suggest that perhaps these folk are being somewhat snobbish. The idea that not relentlessly pursuing extraordinary enlightenment is analogous to an unhappy and ‘wasted’ life of bored capitulation and/or braindead subservience to Masonic mind control is one loaded with lazy, ideological assumptions. Moreover, it barely manages to conceal the commonplace self-hatred that fuels much of human thinking, from our body-shaming religious and cultural traditions to the halitosis traumas of breath freshener ads and the various fountain of youth fantasies we cling to.3     

Since the overwhelming majority of us are not and won’t ever be great – nor will we ever be considered so by history or hearsay – what remains for us is to find value, construct meaning and enjoy the fruits of our ordinariness. Yet, rather than viewing this is as a consolation prize, we can more fully embrace our average selves.

We can start by acknowledging that our place on the belly of the bell curve is neither a crushing bore nor a fundamental failure, but an evolved, animal fact. In a social species like ours, any tribal group will organise along roughly hierarchical lines, with its stratum of perceived value and divisions of labour. A quick scan of human societies, from small clan based communities to the hyper-sized abstract amalgams of cities and nations, shows us that under all political and economic conditions there are leaders and other elites, outcasts and transgressors, a small percentage of game changers and passengers, and the rest of us. This ‘average rump’ is critical for group cohesion. A tribe in which everyone fights to be alpha, or where decision making is slowed by a need to obtain the input of every single member on all occasions is a tribe soon to be divested of its territory and livelihood. Things like task delegation and specific expertise – i.e. hunting or healing – are powerful psycho-cultural adaptations. Through a raw survivalist lens, a relatively content, rule-observing and mainly quiet majority is both more efficient in terms of collective organisation and a better fit for most individuals. 

Quite simply, ordinary works.

“Works for who?” I hear you cry. For the majority of us, most of the time. While true that the task of attention-seeking, narcissistic alpha bullies is made easier by the fact that the bulk of us simply do not have the temperament, energy or competitive determination to claw and stab our way to greatness, our payoffs are likely more subtle and profound than the typical cost/benefit profile of power and status. In saying this, I am not seeking to dismiss or excuse the numerous cruelties that are visited upon ordinary people by the mechanisms of entrenched privilege. Nor am I defending traditional rigidities around class and caste or gender and ethnicity; or indeed minimising the effect that asymmetries of knowledge, influence and wherewithal have on the workings of everything from our economies and legal systems to the relationships between bosses and workers. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that we opt for an ovine orthodoxy.

What I am suggesting is that we unshackle our sense of worth and satisfaction from the compare-a-thon of social media feeds and celebrity worship, and that we off-load the self-punishing narratives of envy, lack and ‘never quite good enough’ that fuel our collective and unsustainable mania for continuous attainment.

The core truth is that we do not have to do or be anything, least of all great.

Let’s simply be who we wish to be, and not allow the various self-improvement predators to sell us yet another over-priced path to so-called success and everlasting bliss. And as for the self-styled ‘awake’ people, and all those boorish jihadis who tell us they are fighting for our freedom or uplift…I am sure we will not miss their oh-so-superior scorn for our ordinary lives. (My bet is that our dinner party conversations will likewise be more fun without them.)

Indeed, perhaps the trick to a more fulfilling ordinariness is a kind of middle path. Have ambition, do a little striving, but take time off, enjoy what you have. Dose out your effort and passion. Pick your battles. Understand that in a world of billions you are highly unlikely to be either the best or the worst. Have fewer musts. Dial down the should voice. And remember, Beyonce will be as dead as you and Elon Musk won’t be taking his rocket ships with him.

The much ridiculed and classically obese game show fan – blobbing on their ugly sofa shovelling junk food into their mouths – is as alive as the smartest Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist.

Let the holy truth warriors and marketers of manifest destiny judge our ordinariness as they will, because we will probably be much better off just getting on with our brief, run-o-mill shot at Being. Maybe, without the pressure of the hyper-individualist, heroic conquest fantasy, we will find more time and space for the unspectacular riches of things like kindness, peaceability, and not being an arsehole.

Sure, it’s cool to be great – go you – but it’s also great to be okay.

*

PS: A personal footnote

For those of you more familiar with yours truly, rather than my by-line, it may well come as a surprise to hear me defending ordinariness. To all appearances I am not and do not live in accordance with the ‘mainstream’ – however you wish to define it. Indeed, when I was an even more self-righteous shit than I am now, I wore my exceptionalist badge proudly. Vehemently.

That I paid a price for it – principally in money terms, but also as a frequent target of male sexist violence – only served to widen the gap between who I thought I was and what I believed ordinary to be. For me, average was more than merely boring, it was the enemy. It wanted to club with me an iron bar. It threw beer bottles at me from speeding cars. It sought to restrict and control. To tame. Bankrupt. Cut my nails. Squish me into the three act structure.

Yet, for all my boho pretensions, I have always believed in a fundamental equality. The much ridiculed and classically obese game show fan – blobbing on their ugly sofa shovelling junk food into their mouths – is as alive as the smartest Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist. The phone poking commuter, the time serving office worker hiding in the middle ground of corporate/suburban anonymity, the folk who only watch blockbusters, baseball, and shiny floor talent quests…none are less sentient, less worthy of love and compassion, and none shall be more dead.

If I have been a snob before I apologise unreservedly. The truth is that while I may not walk the path you do – and may have well-considered reasons not to – my path is not superior, simply divergent. My ‘truth’ does not relegate your ‘truth’ to the status of blind belief in mainstream propaganda. I am not awake while you remain asleep. We may disagree, and hate one another’s taste in music, but that only makes us different, not enemy combatants in a war of someone else’s construction. We all live somewhere on the bell curve, and for all our celebrated uniqueness we remain abidingly similar.

Even as I strut around on my bohemian high horse listening to avant-noise records and contemplating the void, I understand that the distance between your statistical normality and my supposed specialness is little more than a veil of ego. And that, dear reader, on average, is okay by me.

1: If you are unsure about what the bell curve is, click here.

2: After some reflection, I opted to withdraw The Almighty’s pronoun capital. Why doff the cap to a petty, jealous, sexist, racist, homophobic, murderous, slavery endorsing control freak whose notion of love is a form of existential blackmail? Sorry God, but it’s lower case for you this time.

3: Going further, I would argue that our proclivity for ‘hating who we really are’ – which is encoded throughout human culture – is part of what I have previously called The Central Denial. In this construction, we confront the certainty of our death with layers of denialist/perfectionist ideology and activity. In other words, we like to pretend that we won’t die, and that we are somehow specifically ordained with an amazing significance that means we alone are ‘destined’ for our preferred manifestation of cosmic magnificence…but only if we strive, behave and believe correctly. And in this way we routinely infantilise ourselves, for we are forever locked into a ‘parent-pleasing’ and transactional relationship with the world; a world which never quite gives us its full approval.

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