An Ordinary Life

First I must confess that I do in fact like the line in Little Women when Jo’s mother says to her: “You have so many extraordinary gifts; how can you expect to lead an ordinary life?” But as much as I want to see Jo live an extraordinary life, I’m finding myself more and more wary of such comments. Because we live in a culture where everyone is expected to have an extraordinary life. To just be an ordinary person—well, that’s settling. As in Lake Wobegon, we are all above average. And we have people saying odd things like,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”1

But what if it turns out that some of us aren’t actually powerful beyond measure? What if it’s simply not the case that we’re all “brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous”?  I dislike this particular quote both because I think that its failure to acknowledge the brokenness and tragedy of the human condition clashes with the message of Christianity, and also because it reinforces this idea that our worth is tied to amazing  characteristics.

I say this as a recovering overachiever, who still lapses all too easily into that frame of mind. All my life, I’ve been reinforced for achieving things—strikingly, not so much for learning things and making mistakes along the way, but for making it to the finish line, and preferably in a flashy way. Being an overachiever is exhausting, because no matter what you accomplish, you can never really relax—there is always another goal up ahead. And yet I’ve been desperate to stay on this hamster wheel because of the fear that if I fell off it, I wouldn’t be anyone anymore. My two choices boiled down to these: be extraordinary, or be no one.

I realize I’m indulging in a lot of self-analysis here, but (obviously) my story is the one I know the best. And also because two-and-a-half years ago, my life came crashing down. This had a lot to do with mental illness, but the trigger for it also had to do with losing identities that were such a deep part of me that I didn’t know how to function without them. It left me with a profound sense of disorientation, and deep uncertainty about who I was, and where to go next. It was brutal. And it gave me no choice but to start seriously thinking about what I actually valued, or even wanted.

I’m still grappling with these questions. But one of the things that I’ve had to seriously consider is whether it’s actually worth it to try to live an extraordinary life, and all the pressure that goes along with that. And to my surprise, I’m thinking, maybe not. There is a peace that comes from looking at life without all that pressure. It turns out that I don’t have to be special after all. It doesn’t sound flashy or involve fireworks, but it makes it a whole lot easier to get up in the morning.

I don’t mean to discount the powerful teaching that we are all children of God, and as such, have extraordinary potential. But putting it in those terms has a different feel to me. In the LDS understanding of life, we’re here to gain experience, to learn—and we’re expected to make mistakes along the way. A relationship with God runs counter to the desperate feeling that you have to accomplish a certain amount, or live some kind of extraordinary life, to be acceptable—because with God, you already are; you are already more deeply loved than you can possibly comprehend. And it’s okay to be who you are, wherever you are, and go from there. You can live an ordinary life. It’s not “settling.” It’s daring to actually experience what life has to offer, rather than zipping through it to the next goal.

  1. []


  1. I can relate to what you describe. What if it’s okay to be “average’? But what if our definitions of “powerful,” “brilliant,” and “fabulous” are incorrect or skewed? For example, maybe “powerful” means to make conscious choices – not to be a CEO. Maybe we overachievers think that fame is required to have worth. If someone else acknowledges my amazingness, then it must be real. But if no one knows about it, then it must not exist.

    For those of us who love to strive and achieve and receive adulation, whose standard are we using to judge ourselves? Am I trying to live up to the US Ivy League definition of success? Or the Beverly Hills definition of success? Or the suburban Salt Lake City definition of success? What exactly am I trying to (over)achieve? And thus we strip away the values that we do not agree with, the expectations that do not resonate with our self-knowledge, the resources we spend on proving ourselves to people we don’t actually like or agree with.

    That’s why I say, as for me, I serve the Lord. But I must admit that I wish the Ivy League thought I was cool, too!

  2. As a recovering gifted child, I love this. What would it mean to be an ordinary-looking person of modest abilities living an ordinary, obscure life? I’d better find out, because that’s what I’m doing.

    It turns out to be an immense relief. Most of life is ordinary, and there’s such joy and pain, divinity even, in the ordinary. Everything worthwhile lives there.

  3. This is post is really interesting to me (and, Angie, I love your questions about what should even constitute being successful). This discussion reminds me of the documentary “21 up America”, which unfortunately is not widely available. In this series they follow the lives of a variety of individuals by filming them every 7 years. In the 21 edition, most of the individuals are trying to figure out what to do after college graduation. I remember one girl who had had tons of pressure placed on her her whole life to succeed academically and felt some regret that she hadn’t had more time to enjoy being a child, adolescent, and young adult. Another individual worked in a small town pet-store, and mowed the lawns of the cemetery in the evening to make extra money. He had a small house, a fiancee, and a couple of pets and seemed very happy.

    Overall, I think we should focus on what works best for the individual. Some people do well in circumstances in which they put pressure on themselves to succeed academically or in their careers. For others, this just leads to a lot of stress and a feeling of never being good enough. We definitely need to broaden our definition of what it means to have a successful life.

  4. I might be twisting the concept a little, but I really like the economist Herb Simon’s idea of satisficing, where you look for a good enough solution to a problem when it’s simply not possible to find an optimal one. So if we don’t have enough time or mental processing power to find optimal solutions to problems, it’s also not surprising that (most of us) don’t have enough time or mental processing power or willpower or whatever to live extraordinary lives. I’m pretty happy feeling like I’m living a good enough life, knowing that it’s really beyond my capacity to be extraordinary. 🙂


Comments are closed.