I’m just an average person
We all want to matter, to be truly remarkable at something — find your purpose, live your best life and all that.
Don’t we? So I’ve been told. Yet, do people who live in an off the grid commune in the woods and spend their days farming and contributing to their community have either the time or inclination to entertain an existential grand life purpose related crisis?
I doubt my great grandmother had much reason to feel inadequate about her job title as she was tending the land. I bet she never asked herself if her peers were on average better than she was at growing a tomato, and if that meant she had wasted her life and her potential. In fact, she was so sure of her place in the world that, when the Romanian communist militia came over to claim my widowed great grandmother’s small piece of land and forcibly relocate her to the city in the process of accelerated industrialisation, she greeted the party representatives on horseback, holding a shotgun. Kid you not. See, that shit’s more badass than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life — and she wasn’t even trying.
Could she ever have imagined the great granddaughter she would never meet losing her shit in front of a computer because she’s a 31-year-old copy/content writer who feels like other copy/content writers have accomplished more than she has in their careers?
Being average and being insignificant are different beasts, mind you. I’ve mostly come to terms with being insignificant, especially in the grand scheme of things. As an atheist, that part sort of comes with the territory. I take low-key masochistic pride in not shielding myself from this fact with platitudes or delusions of my being somehow less irrelevant. As I’ve mentioned before, when the weight of my mortality and insignificance become a problem, I just read some Carl Sagan.
All good so far. But you know what Carl Sagan wasn’t? Average. He was the opposite of average, brilliant in everything he attempted, a fortuitous gift to mankind.
And you know what I’m not? Any of the above.
I’m just a regular Joe. Neither too kind nor too cruel, neither online-famous talented nor unemployable, neither too wise nor too impossible to live with. Your standard ‘made it into the middle-class club’ white chick.
On the plus side, being average means that these days I can live with myself, eh, well enough. I’ve reached a point in my life where I’d give myself one of those lukewarm 4-star reviews. Apologies to anyone who’s met me before I got adequate diagnosis and care with my mental illness. Those were some dark and unbearably difficult to live through 20 something years there, for both myself and those around me. There were too many potentially life-threatening moments to even recall, when I thought anxiety, self-loathing, and depression were going to get the better of me. However, with proper treatment and years of practice, I’ve mellowed out and matured into a decent, no-drama-no-bullshit sort of personality that I myself find bearable, at its best even somewhat charming. I’m good at my job, I do said job reasonably fast, and without complaining too much. I do my honest best to honour my social commitments despite my chronic anxiety and to be an uneventfully decent person through them. I treat my cats well. I suck at remembering birthdays, or things in general, which I’m told is in part a side effect of depression, but I’m working on it. I’m working on treating myself better, too. Which is to say, if you’re struggling, please try to hold on best you can; shit does improve. You’re nobody’s success story porn. So my modest advice is, take your time, be kind to yourself, and allow yourself the compassion of a messy, normal recovery process.
I’m obviously still no success story myself — and that’s fine. But I do go to sleep knowing I’ve left the world at the very least as sad and as bad as it was in the morning. Some days, I may have even managed to truly connect with someone and make their day just that little bit better or easier. In the past 5 years, I may have given a handful of people pause for thought. Maybe so much as one person in the world has read about my journey with mental illness and felt less alone. It’s not much in terms of the KPIs, but you know, something is better than simply resigning to being a fully self-centered recluse.
On the down side, being average means there’s nothing about me that’s truly remarkable in the grand scheme of things, something I’d want written on my proverbial tombstone. There are a fuckton of people on the planet who can do anything I can do better. I will set no world records and I will definitely not write life-changing books on astronomy and the philosophy of science, nor will I go on to be remembered by millions of people after I die.
It was easy for you, Carl Sagan, you were a world-famous astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, poet and science communicator. Hi. I’m, er, Moody. It’s an honour to meet you. I’m sure this will prove to be a completely unremarkable conversation, from your point of view. No, please, sit down. There’s standard quality wine and we’ve laid out equally unexceptional snacks. Kindly consider purchasing a $5 ‘We’re all average here’ t-shirt on your way out; it helps keep the lights on.
There are significantly more distressing problems in the world, I’ll tell you that, even my existential crisis is nothing to write home about. The planet is on fire while politics, racism, bigotry, cruelty, indifference, and tribalism are wreaking havoc on our relationships with one another. People are starving. People lack access to housing and basic healthcare. Animals are suffering and dying out. And here I am, arriving anxious and unfashionably early to a midlife crisis.
I don’t have much experience with what childhood was like for the average millennial. But if the internet is any indication, not many of my fellow millennials were taught how to live with the fact that they’re average — which, on average, most of us will end-up being, because, well you get it, it’s kind of in the name there.
Quitting as a dysfunctional coping mechanism: the making of a cripplingly-idealistic average person
I was born and raised in the second world of Bucharest, Romania. The decades-long reign of communist tyranny officially ended just a couple of months after I was born.
My parents were raised on scraps of smuggled literature, surrounded by second-hand hope, bad food, and questionable home-grade alcohol, with no dreams to be made out on the horizon. They were educated and indoctrinated to expect to be stuck in a dead-end job for the rest of their lives and be grateful for it.
Naturally, after communism was overthrown, import became a thing again. And the first thing we started importing, was dreams. (The second was cable TV, because the notion of television that is on for more than precisely two hours a day and features something other than propaganda, was obviously appealing.)
My kind, well-meaning parents wanted to raise me with as much as possible of what they were most cruelly denied growing up: the opportunity to become things. Suddenly, their small world had turned global; they could envision anything.
To further complicate matters, someone got it into their heads that I was smart. I have no idea who in my family first coined the notion, but I’d like to go back in time and slap them on the face with a freshly imported batch of asparagus. Because from then on it was all ‘kid with lots of potential’ pressure to succeed. I’m not sure I was even particularly smart, so much as particularly anxious and self-conscious, at an age when children aren’t expected to carry themselves with such gravity. Yet, in my family, the smart kid notion stuck.
The message was at once involuntary and implicit: I was denied these opportunities and it’s therefore your duty to take advantage of them. You can be anything you want to be and you’re smart so be something cool, dammit. It’s your obligation to live up to all this potential.
It’s a bit like that joke with Son, you can be anything you want to be: doctor or engineer — except I really did get to be anything I wanted to be, so long as what I wanted wasn’t to be just another regular blue-collar worker. Because hey, we could’ve done that, too. That’s no fun. Do something fun, dammit. (Cable TV didn’t help, either.)
I neither blame nor hold them responsible for my life as an adult, of course, because doing so would be devoid of empathy, maturity and agency. I have insanely amazing parents whom I adore and, these days, our relationship is healthy and rewarding. They invested time, emotional energy, and resources into making me a functional adult. I am forever grateful to have them be a significant part of my life and strive to carry the legacy of their life lessons with dignity. I hold towards them no judgement, only love and compassion.
I merely feel it’s important to acknowledge that I was railroaded into wanting all that ‘special person’ stuff. It’s important to admit to it, in order to move forward and let go of the merciless self-judgement and the immense pressure I place upon myself.
My pre-adolescent and adolescent brain could not understand the nuances. The equation became much less complex: to be average is to be a loser who’s squandered the privileges they were dealt in life and will amount to nothing. This translated into crippling perfectionism, rather than the ambition my parents were aiming for.
Nobody in their position could’ve predicted this result. The exact same strategy was working well enough on my peers. They saw no logical reason why it was failing to work on me. (Mental illness education was not a thing back then. We started importing that about two decades after cable TV.)
I quit some things before I’ve even started them, because I’m terrified that I might suck at them. I’d rather believe I could do them, than live through proving to myself that I suck and need to try again and that’s fine. I don’t know where I was when my parents thought that lesson, but that part never got through, despite resilience being a trait both of them display in abundance. I’m sure they did try their best to pass that on. I must’ve zoned out through it, a lifelong trait not without its drawbacks.
Because I can’t just do a thing. I demand from myself to be legendary at it, or we’re not doing it.
If the above resonates in some way, I don’t know how you came to internalise a similar conclusion. But I do know this abhorrent notion of having to be legendary at things stuck with many of my peers for one reason or another, as is evident in our incessant obsession with celebrity culture and social media clout.
I have to face and come to terms with being scarred by this ideal that is so seemingly vain. We’re not supposed to admit that we dreamed of being a famous genius. We’re supposed to be humble and a little jaded, while the famous genius part happens naturally, as if by accident.
Quitting as a way forward: The dreams we’re better off leaving behind
Even if I were to have been ‘destined for greatness’, I’d have lacked the ambition for it. I’m a hopeless hedonist: if it’s too complicated, I can’t be bothered; if it takes too long to master, I’m bored before we’ve even started; if it requires insane levels of CEO-morning-routine discipline, I’m too depressed to care; if it’s not imperatively essential in order to survive and stay sane, just fuck it. If you need lessons on how to quit or downright give up altogether before you’ve even started, DM me. Case in point being, if I can’t find the joy in things and just put all the pressure in the galaxy on myself instead, I won’t do them. That’s why I’m good at my job: it doesn’t take being Yuval Noah Harari to write decent copy; I can therefore just relax a tiny little bit and actually derive some pleasure from the process of writing it.
I’m finally coming to accept all that.
After decades of war with myself, I’ve realised the only thing to do about this obsessive perfectionism that keeps me stuck not doing things because I know I won’t be above average at them, is to take my favourite lesson in life and apply it in this one area I never thought to: fucking quit, man, it’s, like, beyond complicated to live this way.
Suck at things. Be average. Below average. Who gives a fuck? Seriously, everyone is way too caught up in their own respective shit to notice. Give yourself permission to suck at it. Write that novel you’re afraid nobody is ever going to read, write it because it’s fun and suck at it and be done with it. Voice that idea in that meeting even if everyone will think it’s stupid. Stop living your life while holding yourself to an impossible standard.
Kill the imported dream. Be openly average.
Who knows? One other person out there might feel that little bit less alone.
And that’s enough. You are enough.
Thank you for joining me on this average, yet quite personal and emotional journey. It’s been great having fun being average.
And as ever, until our next debate, stay safe, nerds.