The heights of great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Ordinary. Say it out loud. Ordinary. I just made you cuss. Now say it again. Listen as the sound reverberates off your tympanic membranes and deep into your brain.
These four syllables form perhaps the most offensive word in the English language – next to “can’t,” of course, which we’ll discuss in a later post – and there is simply no excuse for an individual to give that category any space in their mental framework. It is an appellation of nothingness, and it leads to all kinds of egregious offenses against personhood and progress.
The great problem of our time is that the larger part of humanity in the West has been duped into believing that they are “unique,” “amazing,” “gifted,” “entitled,” and all manner of other superlative assignments – when the cold truth is that most people are at best just plain ordinary. They have been inoculated with a falsehood – a lie told long and loud since the 1960’s – that the only requirement for an extraordinary life is passage through a birth canal into the elysian glories of Planet Earth. By simply existing, you somehow vicariously appropriate the collective achievements of history and take your place at the crest of civilization’s rolling wave. One you’ve arrived, you’ve arrived.
Nothing could be further from the truth. We are born naked, bloody, and helpless – pathetically ordinary. And in a few short years, passively adrift in the passionless currents of the zeitgeist, we’ll enter our graves in much the same way. From our first inhalation, we are bombarded by a barrage of post-modern rhetoric that proclaims the supreme greatness of who we are as we are. No need to fight. No need to persevere. No need to live what Theodore Roosevelt famously called “the strenuous life.” We buy into this paradigm not because it is true but because it tickles our ears by absolving us of the obligation to wrestle from life those great riches which are hidden away for the few who dare to swim against the spirit of the age. Instead of constructing enduring monuments from the raw materials of our intellectual and physical endowments, we remain nebulous shadows of the true greatness that lies within our grasp. Ordinary men doing ordinary things. The boats of science, philosophy, education, and art remain undisturbed, quietly anchored in the placid harbor of former glory.
But along the thread of time, there have been those singular personalities, those great titans who have broken rank with the ordinary and attained for themselves and for mankind eminent splendors that have persisted – and will continue to persist – for a myriad of generations. Consider for a moment what a sampling of these gargantuan individuals would think of our current moods of passivity and entitlement:
It’s painfully clear that most of us would not even begin to see the ankles of these enormous figures from the platform of our current circumstances. But it was not by magic or fate or sheer talent that these men and women attained the heights of greatness. It was the fact that every one of them chose to walk a path where their abilities were strengthened, their intellects cultivated, and their desires inflamed by rigorous, relentless efforts to live in the realm of the extraordinary. They wrestled with life, its pain, its adversity, and its complexity, and they rose from the chaos with a victory that cannot be denied them by posterity.
The Critical Paradox
I do not know a single person who desires to be ordinary – they would all raise their voices in loud protest at the thought. Yet I know almost no one who does not routinely engage in ordinary thoughts and ordinary actions with ordinary people pursuing ordinary things. Well, my friend, you cannot have it both ways. You become what you read, what you think, and who you know. And if everything about your life seems ordinary – if it looks and smells and feels like the lives of the masses – then your life is ordinary. But you can’t whine about it if you’re doing nothing to change it. If you want a name and a life like Washington or Nightingale or Rockefeller – which you most assuredly are permitted to obtain – you had better buckle up and get ready for the most fantastically arduous journey imaginable. But until you make the choice to make a change, you best keep your head down, your mouth shut, and stay out of the way of those who are willing to get after it.
Is it not a foolish thing for us to complain about that which we are willing to tolerate?