To be happy, I need to hold on to the thought that I am ordinary.
It sounds wrong, I know, when everything tells us to be extraordinary, when everything we aspire to do seems so hard only extraordinary people could do it.
But a great deal of my suffering comes from the thought that I have made it this far in my life without doing anything of particular note, especially when compared to others. I know “comparison is the thief of joy,” and when I am not comparing myself to people I know, I’m comparing myself to people I read about or, worst, the person I thought I would be when I was younger. I find it difficult to stop comparing, stop blaming myself for my failure to become extraordinary. I am neither famous nor wealthy, not someone to whom others come for wisdom, not a best-selling author, not not not.
I am ordinary. But—and here’s the important part—that is all right.
I am not sure how to explain it. Accepting my ordinariness keeps me from beating myself with the weapons of “not good enough” and “try harder” and “be different from what you are” that society provides on a daily basis. Accepting my ordinariness allows for failure without the feeling that failure is a betrayal of who I am.
All this may sound arrogant, and for this I apologize. I thought I was lucky: my family and teachers told me constantly how smart I was. They said I could do anything, be anything. There was a lot of optimism in those days, the 1970s and even the 1980s, long before folks started to realize that the gap between the rich and the rest of us was widening exponentially. As I said, I was lucky—my family loved me and wanted me to succeed.
New studies show that wording makes a difference. It’s not so useful to tell someone that they are very intelligent; it’s far more helpful to say that with hard work and determination, they can learn anything. Because the world we live in now requires versatility, with many people having several careers. Someone who is innately intelligent may not feel equipped to make the necessary changes. I know I don’t. I feel left behind by a job market that’s moving as fast as a flash flood, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
My issues have to do with career. But I am lucky again—so very lucky—that I don’t have to figure it all out yet, or perhaps ever. Because of a non-judging husband with a good job, I do not have that pressure.
Yet that luck made me feel even more pressure to be extraordinary, to do something with my time that would change the world.
Which brings me back to my 2018 mantra: I am ordinary. And if I am ordinary, I am allowed to stumble. To write things that are banal, or cliché, or just stupid—as well as, if I’m lucky, some things that have some merit, that might be good, might help someone, even one reader. If I am ordinary, I am allowed to be introverted, to loathe selling things, to sleep more hours per day than most people, to be chubby, to post numerous photos of my pets on social media. If I am ordinary, I am allowed to wish I lived again in a time before computers and cell phones, and also to check my email obsessively, several times a day.
This freedom makes me think of Walt Whitman, and this wonderful quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” So much of Whitman gives us permission to be our own strange, wonderful, unexpected selves. He considers it sacred, the self. I suppose that’s what I’m working towards, when I say I consider myself ordinary. Not the definition of ordinary that makes it, by default, a bad thing. But a definition that frees me from a cage created by my younger self and by society, the cage of being extraordinary by standards I cannot possibly reach, and may not even truly value.
2018, I am ready to be ordinary. To walk my dog, vacuum the house, talk to my sister on the phone, pop to the grocery store for bagels. Also to read, to dream, to write. To live an ordinary life, with generosity, gratitude, and hope.