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.
- http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Marianne_Williamson [↩]