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Great Expectations

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:

Hump Day Hmm

I have a text file I'll send to each participant who wants it, past, present and future.

Book suggestion:

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


Aliki2006 said…
*Extraordinary* post, Julie :)

I've been pondering these things myself. I think we've always had a "thing" for the extraordinary, historically. But I think we do even more so now because of how spread out and anonymous our society has become.

I feel pressure, too, with regard to my own definition of myself. I don't need to be extraordinary, but I sometimes wonder why it is we define ordinary the way we do.

Great post...
Julie Pippert said…
Aliki...I think we believe "ordinary" limits us from being special or meaningful people, something we can only be IF we are extraordinary.

I challenge that.

I can be special and meaningful. And I'm ordinary.

And that's cool.
S said…
Julie -- this one is near and dear to me.

I have a PhD. I am not using it. Is it a waste? I don't think so.

My husband has a PhD as well. He is an academic powerhouse. His name is recognized immediately by everyone in his field. He once said to me that he would not be happy if he died without having become a "star." (Needless to say, what constitutes being a star is idiosyncratic.)

Me? I don't care if I'm known. It's never been that important to me. Only -- once in a while, my husband's ambitions and beliefs seep into me and take hold.

Luckily, I snap out of it within 24 hours. ;)
kaliroz said…
First off ... I love that book, Julie. I got it for Christmas. I also love The Red Tent. That book made me question patriarchy. Dogtown question what it meant to be real. (Not in the real world sense.)

I get trapped by a fear of mediocrity. And, for me, it's not so much that I worry others are going to think I'm mediocre ... it's that I will think I'm mediocre. I'm a journalist in the real world and, for me, mediocrity is unacceptable in my profession. It's why there's so much crap on the cable news channels and why local tv news is losing audience. Because it's all become a mediocre copy of everything else. I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference. Not in an Angelina Joile-let me use my celebrity to save the world kind of way -- but by telling stories about people's lives. Whether those people have AIDS, are homeless, are hungry or on the cutting edge of medicine. If I am mediocre than my work suffers and if my work suffers then my community suffers. So that's my professional life.

As far as personal life goes ... I fear I'm not a good mother sometimes, but I don't fear being mediocre most of the time. (I have my moments.) I think the things that make ordinary people extraordinary are the simple things. The smiles, the casseroles, the helping hand. The common denominator in all of that is that those individuals are in touch with their own humanity. You know? We are all connected. And once you realize that, and realize the true enormity of what it means to be human, then you do for others. Some people are born with that innate -- Mother Theresa, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama -- while most of us have to work toward it.

Modern society needs rigid rules, though. Needs hierarchy. Hence social classes. Hence caste systems. It's how those in the society have been conditioned to see things. See that this is the ONLY way things will work. I think the desire to shift from one class to another is one reason so many people strive for extraordinary.
Unknown said…
I think most people are capable of extraordinary moments but that few people are worthy of that designation of extraordinary. Mother Theresa qualifies in my book. But really, I think there are just a few who rank.

It is the unexpected moment, rising to an occasion or maybe one facet of a person. My husband is an extraordinary musician. His talent and dedication come together and in that way, he is beyond ordinary. He has other amazing qualities which on some days rise to more than ordinary. But to the world, it would be his music which stands out.

There are people I know who I say are good people. Good is an adjective I use as rarely as extraordinary. Good is extraordinary. It is at the core of a person and is reflected in their life as a whole.

I want to be good more than I want to be extraordinary.
Lawyer Mama said…
I know this twinge of which you speak. And by many people I would be considered successful. Extraordinary? No. But what's important is not, as you point out, necessarily what you do for a living, but what you do in life.

(Loved The Last Days of Dogtown, by the way.)
thailandchani said…
This is, as everyone has said, a very good post. Your clear thinking is a blessing to everyone around you.

And I say that for a reason.

This culture focuses far too much on the doing .. that "extraordinary" has to be something tangible.

Often, it's not.. and often it's quite ordinary.

Who is to say who might benefit from your clear thinking, as an example? Is it a contribution that has to be "more" or "less" valuable than any other?

We are all teachers. And we are all students.

I don't put much stock in "extraordinary". In any case, it is rare.. which is why it would be labeled that way. Francis of Assisi was extraordinary. Siddhartha was extraordinary. Jesus Christ was extraordinary.

Those who "do", serve their purpose.. but it can't be weighed or measured against the less tangible benefits we all gain from wisdom.

In my opinion, surviving this life, this material plane, with integrity, honesty and kindness is "extraordinary" in itself.

Anything else is gravy.


Anonymous said…
I do think it's sad when things like compassion and basic decency pass for extraordinary.

It is also sad when only the famous or rich are labeled extraordinary. I'm sure we all know people living extrordinary lives quietly among us.

"I used to wish for that, and some part of me continues to feel obligated towards it."

Me too.
Anonymous said…
There is so much pressure to be special, to be unique. I have spent my life wanting to be normal, yet even non-competetive old me wants desperately to be an above average environmentalist. I take myself to task for every environmental choice that is not perfect.

It was nice to read someone putting that twinge into words. Your blog is always so thoughtful.
Anonymous said…
A book recommendation at the end of a well-written post that motivates me? It's like a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top.

(Sorry. Sometimes the last post I'm planning to read for the day is a real thinky one and I'm too tired to rise to the occasion.)

Actually, I just sat here a few minutes thinking, but you've covered everything.
Benjamin Loewen said…
Hmm. This made me think. Just for two minutes though because, after all, I don't want to strain anything. ;-)

I think words are just words, constantly being redefined by the status of society.

If a family or a town or a country or a world has deteriorated in their humanity such that selfless service is uncommon, then a selfless act like buidling a ramp for a stranger WOULD be extraordinary.

I do think there are ordinary people and there are extraordinary people. Some are more ordinary than others. Their acts as well as their thoughts say who they are.

I don't believe in making everyone feel good with blanket statements that we're all extraordinary. We may all be beautiful, glorious, miraculous creatures but being that this defines us all, we are quite ordinary in our miraculousness.

When we try to make everyone feel equal in ability or humanity, we are at risk of dampening their motivation to change and grown and acheive. I see many people equating the statement that they are extraordinary with, "You're perfect just the way you are."

This is just my view, I know, but I don't believe we are perfect just the way we are. It sounds so yummy and warm and ooey gooey good, but the hard reality is that we are imperfect with lots of room for improvement: all of us.

We all have the potential for extraordinary existence. For some, the road is shorter than for others.

I believe the world today is lacking in honesty and character. So, in my eye, anyone posessing complete integrity in honesy is extraordinary. He may be a farmer. She may be a blogger. But he or she impresses me more than the reknowned heart surgeon. We can master the world but the greatest challenge we can ever face is the mastery of ourselves.

Not sure if that was a logical progression of thought to anyone but me... but there you have it. Really must stop this writing past midnight... ;-)
Snoskred said…
A thought provoking post.. ;)

I have to agree with - "the hard reality is that we are imperfect with lots of room for improvement: all of us."

I personally do not think there is any such thing as ordinary. Just as I do not think there is any such thing as normal. Who defines these things? Who is to judge?

I believe we human beings (especially women) are so ready to judge. Me personally, I leave the judging to Judge Judy. She's good at it. They gave her a TV show. Let her judge. Let me simply *see* and *accept* and *be*.

I read a post yesterday Weaning: My story (part 1) which reminded me of someone I once knew who became an absolutely rabid frothing at the mouth extreme advocate for the following message "you must breastfeed and you must do it at all costs, through whatever suffering, and if you do not you are not good enough, you are not a decent mother".

I still fail to see how this seemingly rational person went from having no real position on the topic to being completely militant about it. And who is she to judge? Anyone at all, let alone mothers who might not be able to breastfeed for real reasons and who would feel terrible about that judgment? Why do we have to make other people feel crappy like that?

So that kind of set me up for wondering about who should judge these things.

I believe everyone's life is extraordinary, nobody's life is "normal" or "common" or "plain" or "ordinary". What you are doing is valuable and excellent and just as valid a choice as any other choices you could have made. What you have accomplished in your life so far certainly sounds "uncommon" to me.

Some people think climbing Everest is extraordinary. Me personally, I think it is an act of extreme stupidity only matched, perhaps, by riding a motorcycle without a helmet.

Doing the every day things, the routine and mundane things, the difficult things, the not fun things, the simple act of being in a world where people take guns to school and fly planes into buildings and dent peoples cars without a second thought to how that might make someone else feel, without going certifiably nuts or throttling people you encounter - that is an accomplishment indeed. :)

Someone remind me of that if I catch anyone near our new car with a car door open, please.. ;)
Ally said…
Julie, I loved this post. I couldn't agree more with your definition of extraordinary that in linked to meaningfulness. What's the point of being extraordinary if you don't have a positive and meaningful impact on those around you?

One edit I'd like to suggest, though, and that is this: in the paragraph when you list the occupations of your past schoolmates, yours is the only one not described as "successful." I think you should add that word.
Gina Pintar said…
I don't think people are extraordinary, I think that actions are extraordinary. Even Mother Teresa, mentioned by another commenter, was extraordinary because of her actions. We can all do good things, we can all be extraordinary.

I do think it is wrong on your part where you listed yourself as "mommy blogger" and did not call that extraordinary but yet you listed others as successful as if their jobs made them so.

I have seen very ordinary neurologists and I have seen extraordinary mothers.

Give yourself some more credit for what you have done, what you ARE doing and for what you are going to do today and then tomorrow.

You ARE an extraordinary mother.

Can I meld this comment with another, sure? Ok. I will then.

I think we can build each other up to all be extraordinary. Why not assume that we are doing the best we can rather than what more can we do. I am so TIRED of hearing how judgemental people are of others. Why not see the good things someone has done today rather than what more should they be doing. Am I making sense?

Like if you go in someones house and there are dishes in the sink. Why first think "She did not do the dishes". Look around and see all that IS done. I am sure it is a lot.

Enough comment hogging.

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