Reconciling yourself to your limitations is a painful task, one that many never complete. And yet accepting that you are average can bring an enormous sense of relief. It can also help people live happier and more authentic lives. But it isn’t easy. The fact is, though it may be good for people to see themselves in a more realistic light, most don’t want to. Fantasy and delusion also have their attractions.
Many find being average intensely painful. Unfortunately, it can also lead to bitterness, anger, and aggression. As Satan famously says in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” a line that could have been spoken by every vicious little dictator in history. The urge to stand out from the crowd in some way, to assert oneself and be noticed, can have terrible consequences. In pursuit of wealth and fame, people will literally wreck their marriage, neglect their children, and even betray those they love.
Of course, this desire is nothing new. Even in Greek Myth you find characters like Achilles who, when offered the choice between a brief but glorious life and a long but insignificant one, chose the first. And yet modern life intensifies these desires. A hundred years ago, most people were concerned with simply holding down a job, paying the rent, and feeding their children. In today’s rich, media-driven, “celebrity culture,” priorities have changed. A recent survey of British schoolchildren, for example, found that the most common reply to the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was simply “famous!”
Part of the problem is that the average person is now deluged with information from the moment they wake up. Social media, 24-hour-news, and endless TV channels present us with an absurd and dangerous idea – that it is normal to be famous, beautiful, talented, or exceptional. Consequently, people feel like failures for being ordinary! And, as the psychologist Alfred Adler observed, when people feel inferior they try to compensate. This usually means developing absurd, unrealistic ambitions, which they then fail to achieve, thus redoubling the sense of inferiority.
All Is Relative
First, it may help to picture those you admire in another context, one in which they would be out of place. Indeed, you don’t even need to use your imagination. Have you ever heard a sports star interviewed? Obviously there are exceptions, but most are inarticulate and dull, often replying to interviewers with nothing but a string of clichés. Yes, they are dazzling on the field of play, but invite them to your book group and they would bore everyone to death.
The opposite is also true. Plenty of professors and writers are intellectually brilliant but physically feeble. For example, there is a great scene in the 1967 movie Hombre, in which the young wife of an ageing professor laments “when he takes off his pants and folds them neatly over the chair, that sharp intelligence of his doesn’t seem to count for much… not when all you are left with are his spindly little legs.” And even those who are both physically and intellectually impressive may be emotionally stunted and unable to maintain a relationship.
It is also worth remembering that the qualities a society values and admires change. Today, we pity the schizophrenic and pump him full of drugs. In another time and place he might have been considered a holy man, in touch with the gods or the spirits of nature. We label him ill and lock him in a psychiatric unit; a neolithic tribe would have thought him gifted and made him head shaman!
Or take those with highly logical minds. Because someone is born with the kind of mind that enables him to programme computers and understand technology, he then makes a fortune in business. Had he lived among the poets of Elizabethan London instead of the technophiles of Silicon Valley, however, such a mind may have been considered narrow and dull.
When you really analyze the achievements of exceptional people, ignoring the praise and adulation of others, they can often seem trivial, even absurd. Think of a world famous sports star like David Beckham or Michael Jordan. Take a detached, philosophical view of their achievements. Imagine trying to explain these to an alien visitor. The first was admired because he kicked a piece of inflated leather around a grass pitch, while the second was revered for bouncing a piece of inflated plastic and then throwing it through a hoop!
Though it may sound a little mawkish, what really counts in life is the good you do. Or, as the English poet William Wordsworth put it, the “best portion of a good man’s life/ His little, nameless, unremembered acts/ Of kindness and of love.” The truly exceptional people are those who live for others – for their children, their ageing parents, or the charities they support.
In any case, famous people, the ones who win the prizes and medals, are not necessarily the best; they are simply the ones who have been recognized. Take courage, for example. Courage comes in many forms. Yes, a soldier who charges the enemy may deserve his medals. But he has been trained to do this. He was pumped full of adrenalin, surrounded by his comrades, and then hailed a hero when it was all over. That sort of courage comes naturally to young men. The lonely and unloved, on the other hand, who fight through each day, return to an empty apartment, and then get up the next morning and do the same again are also brave. But they have no comrades, no uniforms, and no medals.
The Danger of Exposure
In any case, exceptional people are often unhappy. For a start, they usually endure tremendous resentment and jealousy, not only from neighbors and work colleagues but even from family and friends. Plenty of rich or famous people have had to watch old friends drift away, or been shocked to find them bitterly yelling “I suppose you think you’re better than me now.”
It is a bit of a cliché, but probably true, that the beautiful often end up lonely and miserable. This may be in part because they find it difficult to sustain close friendships (a beautiful woman, for example, often finds that her friends resent the attention she receives, especially from their partners). Beautiful people also tend to develop a sense of entitlement, believing that because they are so attractive they can expect the perfect partner. When this model of perfection inevitably fails to appear, they either refuse to settle or spend their life feeling cheated.
And of course when you are exceptional, the only way is down. You may be beautiful when young, but looks fade. Or take those with great sporting talent. What do you do when you hit 30 and can no longer compete with an 18-year-old? The one thing that set you apart from others and made you feel special has gone. Again, this can be hard to endure. Even artistic talent can be unreliable. Just think how many musicians have sweated blood over a new album only to be told that it’s nowhere near so good as their debut. And of course the same is true of novelists, poets and painters, who experience early success and then find that the praise and adulation cools, or turns to ridicule.
Being truly exceptional brings with it the danger of what psychoanalysts call “inflation,” meaning that the ego swells or inflates and the individual comes to believe his life is worth more than everyone else’s. To such people, the prospect of annihilation then seems not only frightening but outrageous.
Accepting that you are average does not mean “giving up” or abandoning your dreams. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people are average, whether they like it or not. And, as any therapist will tell you, facing and accepting reality is the key to good mental health.