Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the liberation of being average

One of the most compelling and valuable things I have ever heard in my life was not about excellence, it was about averageness. I was enrolled in a beginning newswriting course at my college. The professor who stepped into the class was a woman in her forties with a simple bob of dark brown hair and dark glasses. She was dressed very simply and once she spoke revealed that she was from New York. She surveyed the class and began with words I will not soon forget, though you'll pardon my paraphrase: Welcome to beginning newswriting. I want to make sure we don't misunderstand each other. Most of you are average writers. Most of you will get average grades. There is nothing wrong with earning a C."

In that moment I realized I loved this professor! I studied with her for another four years. You may think that my hearing those words and my response might sound strange but those words were the most liberating words I think I ever heard in my entire educational life. Here was this fast-talking stern taskmaster of a journalism professor explaining that odds were pretty good I and everyone else in the class were going to be average writers but also saying that being average was nothing to be ashamed of.

As I'm sure you know, we live in successive generations where men and women call us to rise above the muddled masses and to not settle for the complacency of being average. Nobody tells you that you might spend your whole life working your ass off and in the final analysis turn out to be average. Well, nobody I met except that journalism professor. I did, by the way, pass through my degree with above average grades and in my first quarter as a cub reporter at the college paper alarmed my peers by getting an A- in my first quarter, which was almost unheard of.

That wasn't my doing, though. Someone, an editor at the student paper, looked over my work and made a gut call that what I wanted to do (news) was not what I was really good at (features). He considered my news writing average at best but my features he considered pretty strong. So he made the call and I didn't see myself as stuck with it, I went with it.

I ended up having a small career as the features writer on campus and the editor who steered me in that direction once said to me, "I don't know how you did it Law-man [his nickname for me] but somehow you got all the arts professors to NOT hate us." That the arts departments hated the student newspaper was by then well-known to journalism students. I had unintentionally managed to pull off a detente between the arts departments and the student paper simply by knowing just enough about each art and having enough personal curiosity about it to end the animosity. Even the theater professors decided that while I obviously wasn't a theater buff I was allright.

At one point one of the art professors told me that I was the best arts reporter he had seen for the college newspaper since he'd been curator of the gallries at the college. Hazarding to ask when he began doing that, I asked, and the professor said he'd been curating the galleries since about 1967. So I had, entirely without knowing it, established myself as the best student journalist covering arts at my alma mater this professor had seen in thirty years. I couldn't have known that I was going to get labeled the best arts reporter for the student paper any faculty had seen up to that point but I'll bet there's probably someone better than me who has come down the line in the last seventeen years. What would have happened had I gotten what I wanted and gone into hard news coverage instead of covering the arts scene?

In that and in other ways I learned that part of navigating life is recognizing that you may be average or below average in the things you THINK you're good at but amazing at things you don't give much thought to. My professor's words had prepared me for accepting that if I'm merely average at something that's not a reason not to do it but that it doesn't mean I shouldn't switch to what I'm really good at when other people have the wisdom to nudge me that way.

The reason it is liberating to accept being average is because the tyranny of your expectations about what your life ought to mean in your estimation can make you rue your life itself. When Elijah's life and ministry didn't go as he hoped it would he asked for death. God did not give that to him. Jonah sought death rather than to obey the command of Christ to preach so as to save the lost. Jonah was denied the death he sought on his terms so as to bring about the repentance of a city he wanted to die. Jonah thought he was something and that the people of Ninevah were nothing, certainly nothing worth preserving but Christ saw fit to have the repentence of Ninevah the nothing bring to nothing the something that Jonah thought he was. Not for nothing does Proverbs warn us to not rejoice should our enemy fall lest the Lord see this and rain blessing upon the enemy to discipline us.

Some sociological research has indicated most people are average but, oddly, most of the average people when asked to assess themselves consider themselves at least slightly or significantly above average. We are a race of people who delude ourselves into thinking that the rest of the mediocre rabble is not interested in rising above mediocrity while we do not realize the depths of our own mediocrity. In passing judgment on the others in our peer group (mediocre at best) we just live out at some level more proof of the salience of Romans 2.

I used to be someone who looked down on the averageness of others but there's nothing quite like immersing yourself in the really great works of art, literature, and music to help you realize what a dumbass you are when you think you've got something new and unique to contribute as though someone hasn't gotten there first. I don't mean to say wallow in cliche, I mean to say that truly grasping how many people are more amazing than you not only keeps you humble it paradoxically prepares you for having the slightest chance of doing something decent yourself. No one ever contributed anything worthwhile to a creative tradition by only looking down on the majority of stuff in one's own time ... well ... except maybe for Stravinsky!

I don't for a moment consider that I have outgrown a tendency to snobbery but I am also aware that snobbery is annoying in others as well as in me. I want to be the best I can be and I hope that my best can be considered pretty good but hope and accomplishment aren't the same thing. The truth is you have to do the best you can and you can't completely control whether your best is exceptionally good, above average, average, below average, or collosally poor.You can tell yourself all you want that you're this or that but in much of life whether or not you're good or bad at something will be defined and declared by others. If someone declares that you are average that does not make you less valuable as a human being even if you feel it does. I have to give myself this pep talk from time to time especially since I've been hunting for work for more than a year with no real success.

I come back to that liberating moment when my journalism professor said "There's nothing wrong with earning a C." We can tell ourselves that we struggle to be excellent and to rise above the average humdrum of whatever other people accept. It's easy to have this mentality when you're tired of being put on hold with customer service about some order that got messed up in shipment. It's easy to have this mentality that "you" are better than average when you don't have as much consumer debt as someone else but aren't really much better than anyone else. But the scriptures are clear here, let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips. Too many fools praise their own wisdom, measure their own greatness, consider their own accomplishments, make themselves the measure of reason or commensense or accomplishment and do not realize that they, like so many others, are actually more average in most ways than they suppose.

I have a strongly perfectionistic streak. I probably got that from my upbringing. I have unsuccessfully battled a tendency to not even start something if I feel that when I start I may never get to even an average level of competence. There are a lot of things in life where I have felt I have not had an average existence and really wish I had had one. The average person doesn't seem to go through life with the long term effects of vision damaged by oxygen poisoning in post-natal care or only being able to read with one eye. When I have seen people lament that other people have no ambition to rise above the average I get angry becasue most of these dimwits don't realize that there are physical limitations from birth that can ensure that there are averages you cannot obtain.

Back when I had a job and felt more average it didn't bother me as much that I couldn't drive anywhere and had trouble travelling at night because of poor night vision. I notice these things more now because my being physically less than average severely constrains me. Most people who complain about the contentment other people feel 9and it's always other people) about being average don't realize what a blessing it is to be average.

And our calling as Christians, Paul reminds the church in Corinth, was not predicated on our being special. Not many of us were wise or smar or beautiful when we heard the good news of Christ. In other words we could say that Paul was warning the Corinthians that not many of them were, really, above average when the good news of Jesus as Christ was preached to them. The great failure of the church in Corinth was imagining that they were better than average when Paul had to break the humbling and painful news to them--in these areas you are above average and in these areas you tolerate terrible things that even the heathens find debased, and in these other things I have to write to your shame because you have failed. As with the Corinthians so it is with us, the testimony of the apostles and the Spirit's conviction must reveal to us that we are not as awesome as we think we are but that we are also reciipients of the Lord's favor. It is this and not our self-perceived innate betterness than others that lets us have dignity. Woe to us if we think our dignity is self-conferred or based on actually being greater or more worthy of respect than other people.