Great Expectations---the novel by Charles Dickens---is about personal potential and development. It’s a novel about making oneself over in order to get what one has been told one can attain, should attain, and to attain what one thinks one wants. The main character Pip is quite ordinary, being raised by ordinary people under fairly common circumstances. Then, one day, he meets Estella, whom he finds extraordinary.
Did she deserve the compliment of extraordinary? I believe Pip found Estella extraordinary simply because she was outside his element of known, thus beyond his ordinary.
The actuality here is that we are, for the most part, all quite ordinary. Estella ended up proving herself, after all, as simply human, an ordinary person.
Ordinary People is an extraordinary movie about people dealing with a circumstance they never wanted, never expected, and have no idea how to handle. It’s a story of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. But not so extraordinary that the rest of cannot, in some form or fashion, relate.
It’s the most classic of all the literary devices for conflict: ordinary people dealing with the extraordinary.
Do you watch reality TV? It uses the same device, and moreover, dedicates itself to sorting the Ordinary from the Extraordinary. The deserving from the not.
Can any of us actually be extraordinary? Are any of us actually extraordinary people?
Is extraordinary the goal? Should it be?
Once this question entered my mind, it’s amazing how often the concept of “rise above mediocrity” hit me in the face. It came at me in the form of books, my peers’ accomplishments, my own, in Sunday School, in Church, on the television, in advertising…in short, everywhere.
While answering the high school meme questions, I became curious about some of my former classmates. Where are they now?
The boy who wrote in my yearbook, “Dear Julie, I will return to this wretched abyss of mediocrity and ignorance to slay those antichrists that we have done battle with. They must suffer a thousand deaths each more terrible than the last. Hopefully I will awaken on June 1 and find that this wretched debacle of the past three years was but a bad dream. Hope you liked [Beautiful Cesspool High]* more than I do. Best wishes always, sincerely yours, [edited out name],” is the head of cardiothoracic surgery at a big name teaching hospital.
* My edit.
One friend went on to a successful television media career, two others to successful print journalism careers, another became a successful bestselling novelist, one successful photographer, several successful entrepreneurs and engineers...and me: stay-at-home mom blogger.
But I’m not the only one. So, those of us who haven’t reached the so-called pinnacle of success: are we failures?
We are all ordinary people. We are capable of extraordinary things at times or find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances, but at base, we are ordinary people. Extraordinary means special, and can too easily elevate one person over another. So it’s important, I believe, to recall that we are each ordinary.
But don’t we all hear the call to be extraordinary, feel a desire for it? What is our obligation towards extraordinary?
In church yesterday the sermon was about how ordinary people can be called to---and can achieve---extraordinary things. The underlying message seemed to be that we all ought to keep ourselves open to any opportunity to be extraordinary; we all ought to reach for extraordinary---everyone can be extraordinary.
The people held up to us in church were indeed ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing. A group of young people---late teens and early twenties--- are dedicating their summer to traveling from area to area providing needed service hours to rebuild, repair, or construct. For example, Medicare, Medicaid and the VA wouldn’t provide a handicap ramp for a disabled veteran (an amputee due to diabetes) who had been trapped in his home, so this group built---complying to code---a 56 foot ramp that enabled this man to safely leave his house and continue his life. This is only one thing of more than a dozen things they did in a two week period before moving on to the next area
Despite their best efforts, they left behind a pile of applications by people needing their services.
These community members aren’t news. Their need has been here for a while. Unmet. Until these young strangers swept into town in matching t-shirts with songs and energy, to do what needed to be done.
And so Sunday morning, an ordinary man stood before a group of ordinary people and asked us all to dig deep, and find within us something extraordinary so we could do an extraordinary thing: that which needs to be done to help others live a quality life.
Is that extraordinary?
And if so, why? Why isn’t that ordinary?
Why are we surprised and amazed by people stopping their own lives to build a 56 foot ramp for a disabled man? By youths building a roof for a woman?
If, for some reason, we can’t or don’t do something that extraordinary, does this mean we have failed to meet expectation...of who we ought to be as caring community members, or (if you believe) as Christians?
Is the only true success, accomplishment, achievement, extraordinariness the Big Act? The large, quantifiable success worthy of a made for TV movie?
I think of the humble classmate---not a famous person, not a highly paid leader---who wrote, “I’m a mom with three kids. I stay at home and find huge joy in raising my children. I hope everyone else found such a wonderful life!”
I know this woman, or rather, I knew her as girl.
I suspect she’s a person who bakes three casseroles for her neighbor who just had a baby. Who thinks of passing along her children’s outgrown clothing and toys to someone who has a need of them. Who, if nothing else, always has a ready smile and kind word for everyone. That’s who she was as a girl.
Is she not extraordinary in her own right?
But again, what’s the fascination with extraordinary?
What is extraordinary, anyway?
Extraordinary to us seems to mean: pinnacle of accomplishment, something noteworthy, newsworthy, and inspiring of envy.
The bestselling novelist, the head of surgery, the famous actor, and the recognizable media journalist. Their accomplishments are extraordinary by definition.
But are they extraordinary people?
As Gwen pointed out a while back when she tackled this topic, we learned a lesson about this from The Incredibles: if everyone was extraordinary, then it wouldn’t be extraordinary.
So when we examine obligation to potential, obligation to life and extraordinariness, and whether one act can render one extraordinary forever, we ought to also consider the concept of contentment in mediocrity and the idea that mediocrity might also simply be accepting one’s place in the universe rather than failing to meet some culturally instituted idea of potential. But more importantly, we ought to separate the deed from the doer---consider the deed, the doing, not the being.
They tell us as parents we mustn’t tell our children what they are; we must instead focus on what they do, and let them find pride in the doing, and on their own figure out their being. This is because we aren’t all capable of the same things, and each effort should be weighed on its own merit.
I agree and think we need to do this in all areas of life: separate the deed from the doer.
This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t compare. Reviewing and considering the deeds and accomplishments of others is an excellent launching point for evaluating where we have our own achievement bar set. It can motivate us to raise the bar, and do more, if we are capable. That last bit is crucial though: another person’s bar, or what they do can’t be our own measure of ourselves.
I used to expect the extraordinary, and when I hear about people who are or who have achieved extraordinary, sometimes I feel a twinge, like a pulled muscle---yes, I used to wish for that, and some part of me continues to feel obligated towards it.
However, I am also aware of both my capabilities and limitations.
I may not contribute by dedicating a summer to building for needy people, but I contribute as I can, where I can. I do my best, and each time I feel a little guilty like I ought to do more, because I hear a story, for example, of someone traveling for three months Doing Extraordinary Things, I pause and reflect: should I, could I raise my own personal bar?
I have, however, stopped asking whether I am, will be or should be, extraordinary.
I have a bachelor’s degree, and that’s as high as my degrees go. I’ve started advanced education a few times, only to be cut short by life events. I worked on one gubernatorial campaign (won) and one presidential campaign (lost). I worked on a children’s television show, writing and editing scripts, handling the marketing, PR and talent appearance and (my favorite part) answering the kids’ fan letters. I attained the title of Managing Editor at a respected publishing house. I gave birth to and am raising two girls in the 21st century. I volunteer my services when and where I can. Same goes for monetary donations. I do what I can to save the planet, when I can. I started my own publishing company and just launched a book for children about autism. But mostly, I just schlep about my house navigating sibling rivalry, sorting and folding laundry, mopping up spills off floors, washing dishes and tidying up---ad infinitum.
I write about myself and my life, and I angst and whine, rail and rant, exalt and show off my life because for me…regardless, it feels extraordinary, because it is me, and my life.
The things in my life that I have found extraordinary from others haven’t necessarily been Big Acts or Grand Gestures. Nobody has built me a house a la Extreme Makeover or sent me on a trip to DisneyWorld. I haven’t won the lottery or American Idol. However, this person brought me a casserole when I had a baby, that person helped me paint my hallway, another person offered me a kind word, and yet another person gave me a chance at a job. These things were, perhaps by comparison, small things, but for me, the action was huge. These things were extraordinary because they made a difference for me; they were meaningful to me.
And I think that is the thing which is, in the end, extraordinary: deeds that are meaningful.
They can be large or small, we may know it or not. Ultimately, I think we must measure it against meaning. When it is meaningful, it is extraordinary.
Meaningful is what we carry with us.
Note: That’s the perfect segue opportunity to remind everyone about this week’s Hump Day Hmm courtesy of Snoskred and is:
"The things you carry with you"
It might be advice, it might be quotes, past experiences or thoughts, it might be what you literally carry with you. Even some seemingly silly advice like that can make for lifelong habits, for better or worse...
Also, I made a button:
I have a text file I'll send to each participant who wants it, past, present and future.
I mentioned that the ordinary and the extraordinary became prominent once I began contemplating the concepts. They played out eloquently in a book I just finished, Anita Diamant’s most recent book, The Last Days of Dogtown, a book which tackles a ghost town on Cape Ann. In Massachusetts, I lived within a few minutes of Dogtown, an abandoned community not far from Gloucester. As you’d expect, there were many old stories, rumors, innuendos, and superstitions about the town…most of which included stories of witches, of course. I picked up the book---in hardback---because she wrote about my old stomping grounds. I read it because I like the author and topic, and I fell in love with the story because it was gorgeous and endearing. Diamant created a moving tale of very ordinary people eking out exceedingly mean existences. And yet, they persevere despite their circumstances, and even do some extraordinary things. It’s the classic ordinary people tale with the classic conflict. I highly recommend reading it.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert